Igniting Spiritual Passion (a sermon from Philippians 3:4b-14)

In this passage, which reflects Paul’s intense spiritual passion, Paul seems to be taking on a group of Christian Jews who were apparently insisting that in order to please God all Christians needed to fully keep the Jewish law in its entirety. In response Paul says that if anyone could glory in keeping the law it would be him. He took great pride in his heritage and his strict obedience to all things Jewish. He was so serious about his obedience to the law that he considered himself “blameless.”

But all the things that Paul put great value and stock in, he deemed as “rubbish” in comparison to “knowing” Christ and “gaining” Christ. When Paul says that he wants to know Christ he is not talking about knowing facts about Christ. One of the things that has always puzzled interpreters of Paul is how few references he makes to the historical Jesus. It was the living Christ that occupied his attention, whom he encountered in a dramatic way as a Pharisee and which changed the course of his life.

Also, when Paul says that he wants to “gain” Christ he is not talking about gaining rewards from Christ or even gaining Christ’s approval or recommendation. He is talking about gaining the righteousness that constitutes the character of Christ.

Paul says: “I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ, and [then -he clarifies and elaborates on what that means] 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 have no doubt that many Christians have misunderstood and misappropriated this passage and other writings from Paul because they have misunderstood what Paul means by “faith” and what he is talking about when he talks about “righteousness.” Whenever the English word faith appears in Paul it is the translation of the Greek word pistis. The simple English word “faith” cannot translate the full meaning of the Greek word. It takes four English words to capture the meaning: faith is just one word, the other words are belief, trust, and maybe the most important word (certainly the one most neglected) is faithfulness. Belief, trust, and faithfulness are all part of what it means to have faith.

Belief, which has typically been emphasized by evangelical Christians, is just one component, and not really the most important component. I can illustrate the role belief plays by a story I like to tell about a minister who officiated at the funeral of a war veteran. A few of his comrades asked the minister to begin the service by leading them to the casket where they would pause in a solemn moment of remembrance and then he would lead them out. This the minister proceeded to do, but instead of leading them out he lead them straight into a broom closet, where they all had to make a hasty retreat in full view of those gathered for the service. The point of the story being that if you are going to follow someone, make good and sure the one you are follower knows where he or she is going. In order to be a faithful follower of Christ, I must, of course, believe that Christ knows where he is going. That’s the role of belief, to believe that Christ is worth following. 

Now we all, I’m sure, believe other things about Christ, and many of my beliefs have changed over the years. However, central to being a Christ follower is the belief that Christ is worth following. But belief is only one aspect of what Christian faith is. I may say I believe, but if I don’t follow, if I’m not faithful to the way of Christ, I do not have faith. I may have belief, but not faith. Faith includes belief, trust, and faithfulness – all three.

Also, in the NRSV the phrase in v. 9 “through faith in Christ” is marked with a footnote. The footnote offers another translation: “through the faith of Christ” with the emphasis being on faith as faithfulness – in other words, through the faithfulness of Christ. If we follow that translation, and many Pauline scholars argue we should, then what Paul is saying is that he is passionate about gaining the righteousness that comes, not through law keeping, but by being true to the faith or faithfulness of Christ. And of course, from all we know of Christ through the Gospels, Christ emphasizes love not law. Jesus said love of God and love of neighbor is the fulfillment of the whole intent of the law. So the righteousness that Paul aspires for is a righteousness of love not law.  To gain the righteousness of Christ means nothing more or less than bearing the fruit of divine love. And the way a Christian does that is by being faithful to Christ.

In this passage Paul goes on to say that in addition to sharing in the righteousness of Christ, his passion is to share in the sufferings of Christ and the resurrection of Christ. Now when Paul talks about sharing in the resurrection of Christ in this passage he is not primarily talking about a future resurrection. Paul certainly believed in a future resurrection, but his emphasis here is on experiencing the power of the resurrection, the power of new life, right now.

So this is the goal toward which Paul presses. This is the prize which Paul pursues the way an athlete trains for a major athletic contest. This was at the heart of Paul’s spiritual passion, namely: to know Christ and be like Christ by participating in the righteousness of Christ, the sufferings of Christ, and the resurrection of Christ.

So what does all this have to do with nurturing spiritual passion in our lives today? I see at least three very practical lessons or applications we can make. First, we can nurture spiritual passion in our lives by practicing a righteousness of love, and Jesus, of course, is our model. Jesus shows us what a righteousness of love looks like  

Most of us are not innate zealots like Paul. Most of us come nowhere near experiencing the kind of spiritual passion that moved Paul. But we can nurture our spiritual passion by practicing love, by engaging in acts of kindness and mercy. By the way, the word that is translated righteousness in the Hebrew Bible and in the Greek New Testament always includes the idea of justice – not retributive justice, not punitive justice, but rather restorative justice – the kind of justice that restores relationships, restores integrity, restores what is good and fair and right and equitable, and restores our sense of communion with God. It is a righteousness or justice rooted in the golden rule (treat others the way you want to be treated) and love of neighbor (love others as you love yourself).

Christian love is always more about what we actually do than what we feel. We should never think that we have to feel a certain way or be excited about something before we do it. We are just as likely (and maybe more so) to act our way into new ways of thinking and feeling, than we are to think or feel our way into new ways of acting.

Jesus, we know, was committed to the healing and liberation of all people. Jesus we know was inclusive and indiscriminate in his love, though he was especially drawn to the poor and the marginalized. And if we want to know Christ and share his passion for the healing and liberation of others, then we must engage in acts of love and righteousness right now, regardless of what we feel. Whenever I have begun an exercise program I have never felt like it. Usually what I feel like is laying on the couch watching a movie with a bag of popcorn. But once I begin and get in a routine the passion for it follows. The passion often comes after we get started. And we can start right where we are – in our work setting, at home with spouse and kids or grandkids, in the network of relationships we are already part of.

So one thing we can do to nurture a sense of spiritual passion is practice a righteousness of love. We can speak words of kindness, do acts of mercy, share generously of our resources and time with others, and try to be as inclusive in our love as Jesus was. Regardless of what or how we feel, we can just do it, and expect the passion to follow.

Second, we can nurture our spiritual passion by letting go of the past and by giving ourselves to the present moment. Paul says that in pursuing his goal of knowing Christ and being like Christ: “the one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal . . .” Paul had a lot in his life to regret, but apparently he invested no time in it. He was focused on living in the present.

Most of us have made enough mistakes in life that if we wanted we could spend a lot of time wallowing in guilt and regret. But what good is that? Some have been hurt deeply in life by people they trusted and it would be easy to play these painful grievances stories over and over in our minds. But what good is that? Those who dwell on the ways they have been offended or hurt by others usually harbor anger and bitterness, which not only poisons their own lives but the people they most care about.

I have been reading a little book on Leadership that draws upon the leadership and experiences of Nelson Mandela. Mandela did not allow his past to determine his present and the future. On the day Mandela turned 84 a worker at one of the insurance companies in Cape Town told about rushing out to buy a newspaper the day Mandela was inaugurated as State President to read about the ceremony. He said he was amazed to read that Mandela had invited one of his former prison guards to attend. He recalled how that day was the first day he had ever seriously thought about forgiveness.

On that same day Joe Seremane, once a leader of the Democratic Alliance in opposition to Mandela’s African National Congress said this of Mandela: “I cannot understand how a man who personally suffered so much can champion forgiveness and reconciliation to the extent that he has done. Madiba does it with such ease that, in spite of my skepticism, I feel invited to try exploring the extraordinary power of forgiveness.”

Mandela was able to do it because he chose to forget the past in order to live in the present and to give his country the best possible future. He was even able to joke about it. In a ceremony to open a Childhood Development Centre Mandela said that people often asked him why he was so active – he was 83 at the time. He said it was because of his secretary. She tells me: You have been loafing for 27 years. Now you must do some work.”

Life is in constant flux; everything is constantly moving and changing. You never step into the same river twice. When you think about it, when you meet a person you have known for years, you are really meeting that person for the first time for you both have changed since the last time you met. There is so much to see in life and so much good to do. Why miss or diminish any of it because of the mistakes, hurts, failures, and missed opportunities of the past. Let’s learn from the past, but let’s not cling to or relive the past, so we can flourish in the present.

Lastly, we must learn to accept that for spiritual growth to occur some suffering is necessary. It’s interesting how Paul connects suffering and the power of resurrection in the text. He 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.” I think that becoming like Jesus in his death means accepting and bearing suffering the way Jesus did – without hate, without bitterness and anger, without the need for retaliation, and with an open life and heart toward God and others.

If we let our suffering make us bitter and closed-hearted, then we learn nothing from our suffering. But if we are open to God, suffering can nurture the fruits of righteousness in our lives – love, peace, generosity, gratitude, humility, patience, courage, and so forth.

Mandela said that after he was diagnosed with cancer he received a letter from a fellow pupil of his 8-year old grandson. The boy wrote, “I’m sorry you’re ill, but don’t stop dancing.” Given the nature and extent of our sufferings, it may be really hard to keep dancing, but if we can, if we can keep our heart open and refuse to get cynical and bitter, God can show us and teach us much.

So, how do we can nurture spiritual passion in our lives? One, by practicing a righteousness of love, two, by living in the present and refusing to be shackled by the past, and three, by accepting that some suffering is necessary.

Our good God, as share together in the bread and cup remembering the suffering and death of our Lord, help us to see that in the many little deaths and losses we experience on this earthly pilgrimage, we have daily the opportunity to experience the power of Christ’s life. Even though death is all around us, and working in us, may the present moment of our lives be a testament to the power of love and life. Amen.  


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