Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Where Peace Grows

Last night, after a “peaceful” and relaxing day in Santa Barbara, our family drove home to a much anticipated good night’s rest…and it was, until about three in the morning when the sound of a car crash and broken glass awakened us from sleep. Startled by the sound my wife Lisa sprang out of bed to see what was going on but didn’t see anything suspicious. Naturally, I stayed in bed (so much for the man of the house doing his part). But in the morning, we saw the stop sign across from our house (that symbol of law and order) smashed and bent all the way to the ground. Obviously someone (no doubt intoxicated) had failed to negotiate the turn and plowed into it. I thought for a moment about this person who was obviously in need of “peace.” It was another reminder to me of the “un-peace” that is part of our daily lives…whether it’s the lack of peace between parties arguing about health care, or between family members, or between nations, or within our own fractured souls. We all want peace -- especially the shalom of Scripture…which means “wholeness” in all dimensions of life -- but how to achieve it, that’s the question. As Paul addresses the main conflict in Philippi from a prison cell (Phil. 4: 2-9) we learn from where his own peace comes, and how this same peace can grow in us.

Peace grows in the community…that reconciles and rejoices in the Lord. Paul writes: “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord….help these women for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel…. Rejoice in the Lord always…. Let your gentleness be known to everyone” (Phil. 4: 2-5).

Peace flows from the community that reconciles in the Lord. Paul begins making references to the need for unity in the Philippian church back in chapter 1, but now he addresses the main problem: “I urge Euodia and Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.” Notice that Paul doesn’t say anything about the nature of the disagreement. He simply urges them to get along. Consider for a moment what a great help these women obviously were to Paul for he says that they “struggled beside” him in the work of the gospel: The greek verb sunathleo is a strong word that means more than baking cookies side by side for the annual church potluck. It literally means to fight or contend against a common enemy or to labor together. As Jesus’ followers, we will disagree on secondary issues…on politics…on the best way to provide healthcare… on the causes of global warming… on where to send our children to school, or where to sit in church. In the Book of Acts, we learn that Paul and Barnabus disagreed about bringing John Mark with them on their 2nd missionary journey: so they agreed to disagree! What Paul insists is not that these women agree on every point of personal preference…but that they be of the same mind in the Lord. That is, that they refuse to allow their disagreements to become more important than Jesus; that they pursue wholeness and not allow division; that they never forget they are family, sisters in the Lord.

As one example, my own congregation, like many, has had disagreements about worship music; but I think we know that we cannot let such differences divide our community. Our commitment to show forbearance toward one another and to embrace different styles of music is God-pleasing...but it is regularly tested. It is the enemy who wants to sow division and selfishness, generational strife, and a spirit of grumbling. We hear Jesus call out to us: “I urge you to practice forbearance, to be patient with one another, to forgive one another, and to love one another for my sake!”

Peace flows from a community that reconciles...and peace flows from the community that rejoices in the Lord. Paul has said again and again that we have cause for rejoicing. We have cause for real hope about the future. Why? Because we are rejoicing in the Lord. If he is the reason for our life together, he is also the reason for our deepest joy. This joy is directly related to the call to gentleness in v. 5. For this word signifies an attitude of gracious humility in situations where I could legitimately insist on my rights but for the sake of others do not do so. There is a freedom which Christ gives us not to always be the winner, not to always need the last word; it’s a gentleness that promotes reconciliation and it's the fruit of a joyful heart that trusts God to work everything out for the good.

But notice that Paul calls upon his “loyal companion” which may refer to an individual or the entire church "to help" these women (The verb sullambano literally means “to take and to bring together” those who may be the furthest apart. Imagine that you are watching a rock concert in a stadium of 100,000 people. As the concert nears its emotional highpoint, you happen to see see a friend in the front row with your binoculars and then, by chance, you see another friend at the top of the stadium with whom your first friend has had a petty disagreement. Though they haven't spoken for over a year, you are moved to be the "loyal companion." You walk to the top row of the stadium, grab your friend by the hand and lead him down to the front row where you join his hand with the hand of your other friend. Caught up in the joy of the moment, they realize that there is more that unites them then that which divides them -- and that "something more" is you and the friendship that you share. That's sullambano... taking and bringing together, the ministry of reconciliation. The work of reconciliation and re-joicing in the church is not someone else’s responsibility: it’s my responsibility and yours…given to us by Christ himself as part of his healing ministry. Jesus not only longs to bring peace and wholeness to broken bodies, he longs to bring his peace to broken relationships. And we are his helpers in that task.

Secondly, peace grows in the heart that prays…about every area of life. “Do not worry about anything but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4: 6-7). The wisdom that Paul offers here was not untested. Remember that Paul had to do battle with anxiety too. He says as much in chapter 2 when he talks about sending Epaphroditus back to Philippi so that he may be “less anxious” (2:28). Paul was facing the possibility of execution, not to mention the burden of caring for the many churches that he planted…but he learned that in prayer this anxiety was lifted…and that the peace of God surpassing understanding stood guard over his heart and mind.
Look at the breathtaking scope of prayer here! Paul says, “in everything” let your requests be made known to God. Perhaps you’ve rolled your eyes at the idea of praying for good weather at your kid's soccer game, or for a parking place at the supermarket. Sure, our prayers should also focus on more serious matters, but Paul says we can and should pray about every area of life – no exceptions. N.T. Wright rightly reminds us that “If it matters to us, it matters to God.” This is what Brother Lawrence called, “Practicing the Presence of God” – inviting him to be our inseparable companion and friend in every aspect of our lives, realizing that he is already there with us, to speak and consult with at any moment. Now when it comes to anxiety and worry, Paul zeroes in on two types of prayer: asking and thanksgiving. Let’s take them in reverse order.

There is nothing like giving thanks to counteract worry, grumbling, and self-pity. As God’s people we have so much to be grateful for…the gift of his people, friendship and family, daily provision, the privilege of knowing and serving him, the promise of his forgiveness and eternal life. Thanksgiving always seems right…but is asking things from God really OK? Jesus encouraged us to ask the Father for things, remembering that he longs to give “good gifts” (Matt. 7: 10) including the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:13) to those who ask.

You love your children. You would do anything for them. You clothe them, you feed them. You provide for their education. But you have worries and concerns about them. You carry around great bundles of wishes for your children. But have you asked the Father about them? Jesus says, “Just ask.” You are a student. Perhaps you’ve grown up in the church. Intellectually, you have a firm grasp of the Christian faith. Still, you have doubts. You are struggling with moral issues. You are seeking answers. You wish that God would make himself more real to you. But have you made it a prayer? Jesus says, “Just ask” Work is a daily grind. The people you spend 8 hours a day with are demanding, critical, and they care nothing about God. It’s a challenge just to get up in the morning. You talk to yourself and others about your problems all day long. But are you talking to the Father about your work associates? Jesus says, “Just ask”. You have a friend with a health problem. You’re concerned about it. Who wouldn’t be? You’ve told them, “I’ll be keeping you in my prayers?” Are you? Are you talking to the Father about this person? Or are you just practicing the “power of positive thinking”? Jesus says, “Just ask!”

Finally, peace grows in the mind that is focused…on God’s goodness “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4: 8). Today we’re deluged with digital billboards that change their message every five seconds; pop up adds on our computer, commercial slogans on t-shirts, caps and the seats of other people’s pants. Our bodies are tattooed with messages, and images. At Dodger Stadium, I saw the words, “Think Blue” and then on the Jumbo Tron, a cancer hospital flashed the slogan, “Think Cure!” Then, an airship floated by later that was essentially telling me to “Think Beer.” How is a guy supposed to make up his own mind?!

When a program tries to make a change to my computer, my anti-virus software gives me an alert message. “Do you want to allow this potentially harmful change to your registry?” Each day I make choices about what I am going to allow into my mind, my thoughts, and set before my eyes. The evil one would much rather have us focus on what is untrue, impure, unjust, ugly, vicious, and blameworthy rather than on what is “true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, or praiseworthy.” As Roger Daltrey used to sing, let's "get on our knees and pray we won't get fooled again" (The Who, Won't Get Fooled Again)!

And we won't...if we'll open God’s word and let it inform our thoughts and attitudes each day. We won't as we come to worship and focus each week on the truth of the gospel through music, art, prayers, and the spoken word. We won't if we'll commit ourselves to a community where we discuss and “consider” again the divine principles upon which one may build a life. We won't as we intentionally serve others, practicing selflessness instead of selfishness. No doubt some will object: “Heah! I want to be open to think of anything, imagine anything, see everything. This is America!” Just remember that you must also take the consequences. Dallas Willard remarks: "If you choose to step off the roof, you can’t then choose not to hit the ground" (Renovation of the Heart, p. 159ff.) Of course, random thoughts are beyond our total control, but what we intentionally dwell upon is. Luther said, “You can’t keep birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.”

Paul ends this section with a promise that the God of peace will be with those who practice what they have learned. “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you” (v. 9). Friends, it takes more than reading a blog or hearing a sermon about this…it takes practice. Do I ever worry? Of course I do, but I've discovered first hand that the gift of peace and wholeness is given to the those who reconcile and rejoice in the spirit of gentleness and forbearance. I have learned that the gift of peace and wholeness is given to those who know they can pray, rather than worry, about every aspect of life. I have enjoyed the gift of peace and wholeness when I have focused my mind on the goodness of God rather than its opposite. So let's get busy practicing what we've learned…asking for God’s gift of wholeness as we seek to mend broken relationships and be reconciled with those with whom we have disagreed; seeking prayer about those things that worry us today, and focusing our minds on the goodness of God and his promises for those who come boldly to his throne of grace!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Running for the Prize

Athletic competition, and certainly Olympic competition, would be very different without the prize. As spectators, we anticipate the medal ceremonies… the national anthem playing, the look of joy, the congratulations and applause. When I was rowing crew in my college years, the reward most often received for winning was a t-shirt from the other team. That’s all we got, for the most part, but that t-shirt felt like a gold medal to us. Prizes and rewards have always been an important part of athletic competition…but is it right for us to live our lives in anticipation of goals and rewards from God? Paul leaves no doubt when he says in Philippians 4: 14, “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” He’s talking here about the goal of spiritual maturity and resurrection glory. How do we pursue that goal? How are we to "press on" to the finish line of faith? Here are five things to consider:

To begin with, we must recognize the law of undulation. Paul wanted the Philippians to know that he knew he wasn’t perfect: “I have not already obtained this nor have I already reached the goal…” [lit. been made perfect]” (Phil. 4: 12a). The Greek word that Paul uses is teleios meaning "complete, full grown, mature." In others words, he hadn't reached the finish line, but he knew he was on the right track! Paul respected what another great Christian thinker would call “the law of undulation.” C. S. Lewis reminds us that as spiritual beings we inhabit the eternal world, but as physical beings we inhabit time…and so though our spirit can direct our bodies, passions, and imaginations toward God, they are also subject to constant change... physical and emotional ups and downs. “The nearest thing to constancy,” Lewis wrote, “is undulation" [C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Co, 1982) p. 40ff.].

U2’s Bono stated the law of undulation in a differerent way when he said that “Your nature is a hard thing to change… For all that "I was lost, now I’m found," it is probably more accurate to say, "I was really lost. I'm a little less so at the moment." And then a little less and a little less again. That to me is the spiritual life. The slow reworking and rebooting of the computer at regular intervals, reading the small print of the service manual. It has slowly rebuilt me in a better image. It has taken years, though, and it is not over yet" [U2 (with Neil McCormick), U2 by U2 (HarperCollins, 2006), p. 7 ]. In other words, “We haven’t arrived yet. We haven’t arrived at the goal of spiritual maturity and resurrection glory...and won’t arrive before Christ returns or calls us home. There’s a restlessness that’s a gift of the Holy Spirit…. a restlessness that says, “I haven’t arrived yet when it comes to my marriage, or in the way I conduct myself at school or work." A godly restlesness that says, "We haven’t arrived as a church…nor has our worship, our witness, or our service." That was Paul’s attitude, and by the grace of God that will be ours too.

Paul's second piece of advice for those who seek spiritual maturity, is to grab hold of the One who has grabbed hold of you. He goes on to say, “I haven’t already reached the goal, but “but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own" (Phil. 4: 12b). Paul literally says, “I’ve grabbed hold of that for which Christ has grabbed hold of me.” He makes it his life’s goal to take hold of the goal of spiritual maturity in Christ, but he does so in the knowledge that Jesus has already taken hold of him. In other words, Paul says, “I know I’m not perfect. I know I haven’t arrived. But I’m pressing on toward the goal of being more and more like Jesus every day; and I’m only able to do this because he has taken hold of me.” Jesus once said, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me" (Matt. 11: 29). Jesus not only recruits us. He not only calls us. He promises to train us and transform us as we work under his guidance.

I’ve had the opportunity to do some rock climbing and rapelling. It's a lot of fun, but the time that sticks out in my mind was the first. I was repelling with a group of college students off a 200 foot granite point known as "the prowl" in the Minaret Wilderness. It was a starry night, pitch black. At the top, I have to admit that I was quite nervous, so when Brian, our guide, said to me “Steve, why don’t you go first” I thought "O great." Just then a brilliant comet streaked across the sky. It startled me with its beauty, shook me out of my fear, and gave me a wee bit of courage. I put my legs through the climbing harness, strapped on my helmet, and was locked into the rope. It all looked very sturdy…until I started walking backward over the cliff in to the blackness below. “Don’t worry,” Brian said as he prepared to belay me, “This rope can hold a small pickup truck!” I guess I looked nervous! Honestly, I didn’t care if this rope could hold a small pickup truck….what I cared about was that someone had a good grip on that rope! I was petrified, but as I went down the side of that cliff, following my guide's instructions, I was able to do something I had never done before, something I couldn’t have done without him…literally. He was my guide…he trained me, he prepared me. He told me what to do. But I still had to step out over that cliff, practice what he taught me and learn by experience that I could defy gravity as he held on to the rope and I followed his lead. You can’t grow into Christ likeness without taking a risk and a step of faith…but the good news is that Jesus gives us the will to do that. He grabs hold! It’s his grace from start to finish…and if you have that desire, and the will to follow him, that’s the first sign that HE is at work in you!

Next, forget the past and focus on the goal. "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" (Phil. 4: 13-14). The word “forget” (from the Greek verb epilanthano) also means to “overlook” or “ignore.” Paul is basically calling us to “to refocus our attention on the goal”. Paul loved sport. No doubt he had seen the original Olympic Games in Athens or even the Isthmian Games in Corinth. His image of the foot race here comes straight from the Panhellenic foot races in which the runners focused their attention on the finish line, stretching forward toward the goal, and not looking back.

In Paul’s case, forgetting the past meant leaving behind past failure; his efforts to earn God’s approval, and to destroy the church before he met the Risen Christ. For Paul to move forward, he needed to let go of the past in repentance, reconcile with those he injured, and begin to see himself as Christ saw him. But Paul not only left behind past failure, he also left behind past success! We learned last week that Paul had much to boast about when it came to his former life; yet he considered it garbage compared with knowing Christ. We’re not called to deny our victories, but we shouldn’t dwell too long on them either…. One of Olympian Apollo Ono’s gifts as a short track speed skater is his ability to narrowly dodge the chaos of jockeying and colliding skaters which is so much a part of the sport. In one heat he was clearly behind everyone in the pack…but then two skaters collided, knocking out a third. He barely missed joining them as he stepped across them. But he didn’t dwell very long on that near disaster. He kept his eyes on the prize…and to everyone’s amazement…he won. Yesterday’s failures and successes can be an obstacle course of distractions that crowd out any thoughts about God, spending time with his people, or growing in our spiritual life. By his grace, may we learn to let go of those things which hinder us from running the race of faith…and refocus our attention on him.

To help us do that, we need to look for models; and choose wisely. “Join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ…Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is their shame; their minds are set on earthly things” (Phil. 4: 15-19). These days we’re very skeptical about authority figures of any kind. Some Christians proudly declare, “I don't recognize the church's authority or my pastor's. I follow Jesus.” But Paul argues that to do that God has placed spiritual role models in our lives to help us. Certainly there are some very poor spiritual role models -- and there has been much religious "abuse" in the church. We need to choose wisely. Along those lines, Paul warns the Philippians of the false teachers who live as enemies of the cross of Christ…whose minds are set on earthly things; not the things of God. What’s important to note here is that Paul says “their end is destruction.” There is a way that leads to destruction and death and separation from God! “Their god is their belly” Paul says: In other words, the road to destruction is the road that indulges every desire except the God-given desire to know him and have a relationship with him. Jesus came that we might have that relationship…this is what Paul discovered and what Christians through the ages have also found. And so as Paul followed the Savior, so he says…watch me, imitate me, follow my lead.

Again, we all have teachers and mentors, so choose wisely. Find those who know Jesus and walk with him…and ask them to pray with, encourage, & teach you. One of my dearest spiritual mentors both in high school and then again after college, taught me an important lesson: that discipleship flows from community. In other words, Jesus disciples us as we are in close knit community with each other…his Body. What athlete would ever try to succeed without a coach, without team mates and back up? Michael Jordan is a great ball player…but even he needs coaching, mentors. The game can’t be played alone! You simply can’t learn to follow Jesus all by yourself…you need the gift of close-knit community.

Finally, aspire to be a colony of heaven until Jesus comes. “But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory….” (Phil. 4: 20-21). The final point that Paul wants to make regarding our goal of Christ-likeness is the reminder that we are citizens of heaven; citizens in the same way that the Philippians were citizens of Rome. Remember Philippi was a Roman colony, whose task was to expand Roman influence on the Greek peninsula. Paul reminds these Philippians that they should have even greater pride in their role as a colony of heaven; and their loyalty to this world’s rightful King, who promises “to transform our physical bodies into glorious bodies like his own.” On the sign outside our church, we read the words “St. John’s Presbyterian Church” but in truth our first goal is not to be a Presbyterian Church or St. John’s Church. Our number one goal is to be a church that Jesus would be proud of, a colony of his heavenly kingdom!

About 1600 years ago, John Chrysostom said: “It’s the mark of the perfect man not to reckon himself perfect.” That was Paul's attitude precisely, and it should be ours as well -- to be able to say, I haven’t arrived yet; but I’m following the One who has. I haven’t arrived yet but I’m forgetting the past and focusing on the goal. I haven’t arrived yet, so I’m choosing role models to help me get there. I haven’t arrived at heaven’s gate, but I want to be part of heaven’s work. I haven’t arrived yet, “But thanks be to God who assures me of the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ"!

Risen Lord, when we fail and fall short, help us to remember that we will not arrive at the finish line before you return or call us home. Still, we press on, thanking you for the assurance of your strength and love – for you have called us, you have claimed us, and you have promised that you will complete in us the good work that you began. We therefore lay aside the sin, guilt, and shame that weighs us down, confessing where we have wronged you and others, asking for your forgiveness, and pressing on toward the goal of spiritual maturity. Bless us with mentors who can guide us in the Way. Help us to tell others about you, so that those who reject your saving grace might turn from death to life and follow you. In all this, empower us to truly live and work as a “colony of heaven” here and now…giving glory and honor to you daily, our Crucified and Risen Lord. Amen!

Monday, March 8, 2010

No Comparison (Really)

What do you seriously believe will get you through this life, not to mention beyond it? Is it your professional or academic accomplishments? Is it your good grades, your degrees, or your excellent job? Is it your family background, your good genetics, or your social position? Perhaps it's who you know, or who you can schmooze? Paul says in Philippians 3: 3 that he has absolutely "no confidence in the flesh." That is, no confidence in unredeemed human nature and what it can ultimately accomplish. He considers it nothing more than dog ---- (Well, we'll get to that later.) His confidence, he says, is not in what he might rightfully brag are his personal accomplishments (which were considerable), but in what God has accomplished through his Son; and his words echo those of the prophet Jeremiah:

This is what the LORD says: "Let not the wise boast of their wisdom or the strong boast of their strength or the rich boast of their riches, but let those who boast, boast about this: that they understand and know me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight" (Jeremiah 9: 22-24). Along these lines, Paul gives us three strong words of exhortation...

First, be careful what you trust in: put your credentials in the trash (Phil. 3: 1-8). Paul says, “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh I have more" (4). When it came to religious passion, Paul -- speaking of his former life -- was the top dog! He was a “Hebrew born of Hebrews” (5) with all the ethnic credentials of a genuine Israelite. And he wasn’t just a keeper of Torah, he was a Pharisee, the strictest of the strict. "As for zeal," Paul says, I was “a persecutor of the church” (6). In his letter to the Galatians (1: 14ff.) he speaks of his former life in unvarnished terms: “For I thoroughly ravaged the church of God and tried to destroy it…being exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers.” Understand that in the first century zeal was not something one did on one’s knees, in evangelism or works of charity, but with a knife. In other words, at one time Paul was willing to do violence to hasten God’s kingdom, and vindicate his people.

Back then, Paul put his confidence “in the flesh” (4) in his credentials, his racial purity, his strict adherence to Torah, his fierce opposition to the church, and his so-called good works (Phil. 3: 4-6). Now let me ask you again: What do you really trust in…to get you through life? Perhaps it's your professional or academic accomplishments, your social status and position...or perhaps it’s your spirituality: your prayer life and early morning bible studies, or your zeal for social justice? Perhaps these things will get God’s attention and the attention of other people. But Paul’s personal conclusion? “For whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss….because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord…I regard them as rubbish in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him” (4, 7-8). The Greek word skubalon, which the NRSV translates as “rubbish” (Who in America uses that word anymore?!) is actually a much more vulgar term. It means human or animal excrement. It means something like (are you ready for this?) “dog crap” and it would have sounded at least that shocking to the Philippians when they read it.

For the sake of Christ, Paul says "I have suffered the loss of all things" (Phil. 1: 8), all my titles and credentials, my standing as a religious professional; my colleagues and associates now want to kill me, my reputation is shot and I’m sitting in jail possibly awaiting execution for telling people about Jesus…but it’s all worth it. Why? Because compared with knowing Jesus…everything else is “dog crap.” So put your credentials and everything you’ve ever done to try to earn God’s love and the applause of people in a plastic bag (or similarly recyclable material), throw it in the trash and…

Be confident in Christ: place your faith in him alone (Phil. 3: 9) I met with a couple of guys one day from another religious faith. One was an endocrinologist…and the fact that I was a diabetic came up in the conversation. He remarked that in his tradition, having an affliction like mine earns me favor with God. God looks at it as though I had done many good works. I saw the kindness in his eyes…and his desire to encourage me with that idea. It was a holy moment because I had the opportunity to share about what suffering mean as a Christian…that yes suffering is part of our fallen world, that yes God draws near to the afflicted, but that it was his suffering and his sacrifice (not mine) that makes me right with God. For as Paul says, our confidence comes not from suffering for God, nor from our excellent credentials and zealous religiosity…it comes from “being 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 (Phil. 3: 9).

In Paul's day, like our own, there were those who wanted to put a plus-sign after Jesus' name. In particular, Paul wanted to warn the Philippians about the "Judaizers," those who said that Gentile followers of Jesus must first fulfill all the requirements of the Hebrew Torah (law) before they could become a part of God's family -- especially the ritual of circumcision (which was an outward physical sign of belonging to Israel). Paul, like Jeremiah, argued that it was not these outward signs that make us part of God's family, it is trusting in what God has done for us. It is not the outward circumcision that is essential, but rather to be "circumcised in the heart" (Jeremiah 9: 26).

The good news of the gospel is that it's not Jesus plus suffering. It’s not Jesus plus circumcision It’s not Jesus plus ritual purity. It’s not Jesus plus daily bible study, or Jesus plus long skirts in church; or Jesus plus small groups, or Jesus plus speaking in tongues, or Jesus plus listening to Christian radio or Jesus plus raising my hands in worship or Jesus plus my favorite social justice cause….that make me really OK before God. None of these things is bad, indeed they may be very helpful spiritual disciplines, but they are not conditions for salvation nor do they earn us God's favor: we do them "in him" or to put it differently, "in the hug."

Let me say it again. The hug comes for free! Imagine your child or grandchild coming home from school, looking for some sign of your love, a confirmation of your affection...as all children need. But on this particular day, instead of embracing your child or even welcoming your child home, you fold your arms sternly and say, "No hugs...until you clean your room perfectly, or until you finish your home work, or until you get a better grade on your next math test." Their performance is now a condition of your love and, sadly, many children grow up in that kind of environment. But what Paul is saying about the nature of God is quite different. The hug comes for free! Indeed, the hug must come for free! Why? Because there is no way we will ever be able to earn that hug, no way we will ever be able to merit it with our performance. We must receive it with thanksgiving, by God's grace through faith, or not at all.

It’s Jesus plus nothing that makes me acceptable to God! Anything I do for God as a follower of Jesus I do in the hug. I already have God’s acceptance, so the God-honoring works that I do are in response to his love, not something I do to earn it. "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not because of works, that no one should boast" (Ephesians 2: 8-9). So forget any kind of do-it-yourself righteousness, which is impossible (since we all fall short of the glory of God), and embrace instead, "the righteousness that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith (9). When we place our faith in him, God looks at you and me, and instead of our failures and failings, instead of all the things we have done wrong, he sees the righteousness of his Son. He sees not just the person we have been, but the person we are and will be by his grace and power. Again, does this mean that God cares nothing about "good works"? Not at all! But even our so-called "good works" must be redeemed by him. They are a response to what he has done for us in his Son, not a means of winning God's gift of salvation. And so, Paul concludes:

Be clear about the goal: to know Christ above all - the power of his resurrection, the fellowship of his sufferings! (Phil. 3: 10-11) For, says Paul, “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” (Phil. 3: 10-11). Paul’s primary goal is to know Christ. Remember that when the Bible speaks of “knowing” it is not speaking of a mere intellectual knowledge. Paul is not saying that he wants to study and read more books about Jesus (not that there is anything wrong with that). To know someone, biblically, is to know them intimately, personally, on a daily basis. But what is involved in knowing Christ?

Paul says that it's the power of his resurrection, and then the sharing of his sufferings. Note the order, because we might conclude that Paul has it backwards. After all, shouldn't we have to share in his sufferings before we get to know the power of his resurrection? No! Because the overwhelming fact that transformed Paul’s life was the resurrection of Jesus. It was the Risen Lord who met Paul on the Damascus road when he was lost in a miserable pit of hatred and do-it-yourself religiosity (see the incredible story beginning in Acts 9); and it's the Risen Lord who lives and who gives us power to make it through whatever suffering or hardships may come to us in the life. Notice that Paul says I want to know the sharing of his sufferings, becoming like him in his death if somehow (or some way) I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” Here is the word koinonia again, "sharing" or “fellowship.” Paul’s point is that as we bear our own cross, our own hardships and trials in this life as his disciples, we do not do so alone. We have the promise of his fellowship, his companionship, not only through hardship or as we pass through death, but in the resurrection life to come.

Nowhere is that fellowship more powerfully represented than when Jesus' followers share the bread and drink the cup that he first shared with his disciples on the night of his arrest. "This is my body that is broken for you," Jesus said, "do this in remembrance of me. This cup is the new covenant in my blood, poured out for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it in remembrance of me." At his table, we're invited to stop living a miserable life of do-it-yourself religiosity; to confess the sin of our pride and all our efforts to earn God’s approval and the approval of others; and to accept his grace through faith. At his table we declare that it is Jesus plus nothing that makes us acceptable to God; and that when it comes to the love, joy, peace, and power offered to us in God’s Son -- there is really and truly...no comparison.

Gracious God, I never want to fall back into trying to accumulate credits with You. In the past I’ve foolishly boasted in my accomplishments and my ‘good works’. I’ve boasted about my credentials, my titles and my special awards. I’ve boasted in my good grades and my degrees, my family and my social position; I’ve taken pride in my religiosity and the justice of my causes. I’ve even taken pride in my humility! Forgive me for not trusting in the certainty of your love. Please cleanse and forgive me as I stand on the truth of your word: that I am saved from sin and death by your grace through faith; the gift of faith in the life, death, and resurrection of your Son. Fill me now with your Holy Spirit that my life might be a living testimony to all you have done for me, through Jesus Christ my Savior and my Lord. Amen.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Friends Beneath the Surface

How many true friends do you have? In the age of Facebook, when the sheer number of friends we have is a kind of status symbol, this is a relevant question. C. S. Lewis commented that “Friendship is the greatest of worldly goods…If I had to give a piece of advice to a young man about a place to live, I think I should say, ‘sacrifice almost everything to live where you can be near your friends" [The Letters of C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves (29 December 1935)]. The Apostle Paul understood what a gift deep friendships are, that friendship is truly life giving. In his letter to the church at Philippi, he mentions two dear friends, Timothy and Epaphroditus who are important both to them and to him (Philippians 2: 19-30). These are among the most personal and emotionally transparent remarks in his letter where we learn four powerful principles that will help us to be ‘friends beneath the surface’:

The principle of investment: Like Paul, we must invest in our friendships through communication and commitment (19). “I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I may be cheered by news of you.” Friendship requires investment…time, communication and commitment. As you can guess, when I say “friendship” I am talking about more than “friending” someone on Facebook. I have nothing against the online social networking site (I use it myself)…but becoming someone’s true friend involves a lot more than two clicks with your computer’s mouse. Five times in this letter, Paul calls the Philippians his “beloved” friends, and there is no doubt that they felt the same way, for they sent Epaphroditus to help Paul in his imprisonment. Now Paul wants to send Timothy - his long-time friend and co-worker who was with him when he founded the church in Philippi (see Acts 16) along with Epaphroditus back to Philippi so “I may be cheered by news of you.” It would be easy to glance over these words of intention without appreciating the effort involved in fulfilling them.

Picture yourself in a world in which there is no postal service, no telephones, no cell phones, no email connections; no cars or airplanes to speed your journey; a world in which a long distance letter to your best friend must be carried in person, over sea by sailing vessel and over land by foot or horse-drawn carriage. Archaeologist Sir William Ramsay estimated that if a courier were to travel from Rome to Philippi—assuming he went by sea across the Adriatic and then traveled on foot—it would take from 6 to 8 weeks [William M. Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveler and the Roman Citizen, 1982]. All this is to say that in order for Paul to send a letter and then receive news of the Philippian Church it would take a huge investment of time and energy. That’s how important it was to the Philippians that they stay in contact with Paul; and vice versa. May God deliver us from superficial relationships. May he help us to go deeper in our connections with one another… not neglecting to meet together as Hebrews 10:24 says some are in the habit of doing; but spending much time together as Acts 2:46 says the first Christians did; engaging in real face to face communication that requires love, time and commitment.

The second principle of friendship that Paul reveals here is the principle of shared interests: As Paul cosidered the human resources he had available in his imprisonment it was clear that there was only one man who truly shared his priorities and his concerns. “I have no one like [Timothy] who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare." Paul remarks surprisingly that "All of them are seeking their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ ….” Who these self-seeking friends are, we do not know, but Paul says of Timothy, “I have no one like him” (lit. of the same soul), no one who shares my soul deep convictions and priorities like he does. He and Timothy shared a common interest in furthering the interests of Christ.

Friendship is always about something, a common interest or goal. When C. S. Lewis compared lovers and friends he said "Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; friends side by side absorbed in some common interest" [The Four Loves, HBJ: 1960, p. 61]. Certainly lovers can be friends (they need to be)…but friendship is a special kind of love focused on a shared activity, interest, conviction, or taste…whether music or sports, hobbies, food, and especially, beliefs. Having said that, I am convinced that there is no bond among friends that is more powerful than the desire to serve the Creator. I’ll never forget the time I first met one of my closest friends as UC San Diego. He and another guy introduced me to intercollegiate rowing, which was a close bond between us. But though we trained and raced together over hundreds of hours, there were many other friends I made through rowing that I have not seen in years. What was different about this friendship? The bond that cemented our friendship was the common call into the pastoral ministry. I clearly recall the conversation we had one night at a party in which we talked about that sense of call. Thirty years later, we are still close friends. We meet with other friends and colleagues twice a year to encourage one another, study and pray; and that circle of friends continues to expand.

One more point about the principle of shared interests. Paul contrasts those he knows who are only concerned "with their own interests," and Timothy who is concerned with "the interests of Jesus Christ" (which, as we find here, is also a genuine concern for the interests of others, cf. 2:4). One of the hazards of friendship is that our common interest, our common concern can become an invisible wall that shuts others out. Like Timothy, when we are truly focused on Jesus our instinct to shut others out is reversed…because we begin to look out for the interests of others; not just our own. Our circle of friendship becomes an open circle, rather than a closed circle. Even in the church we can lose sight of Jesus and begin to focus on lesser priorities and interests. But Jesus will not be a second rate interest. He wants to be first, and all other interests, hobbies, passions, and past times (even our most cherished 'religious activity'), must serve the goal of welcoming and inviting others into the circle of his forever friends.

In addition to the principles of investment, and shared interests, Paul models the principle of honesty. Like Paul we need friends with whom we can be completely honest (25-28). Paul continues, “Still, I think it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus – my brother and co-worker and fellow soldier, your messenger and minister to my need…..” One of the most beautiful things about Paul’s letter to the Philippians is its transparency. N.T. Wright points out that “If all Paul’s writing was solid, dense, abstract theology we would never have known what he was really like as a human being" (Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters, p. 111). What Paul writes concerning Timothy and Epaphroditus gives us a window into Paul the person, not just Paul the theologian. Tom Wright remarks that if we didn’t have paragraphs like this we might think that Paul sailed through life free of worry or trouble and without a care. So in v. 25, Paul speaks of Epaphroditus as the minister to his need. Yes, Paul had needs; and he wasn’t afraid to say so! In the first century, a prisoner survived on the good will of friends and family who brought food and supplies. Paul’s needs were real…he truly appreciated the encouragement Epaphroditus brought him.

Paul goes on to speak in v. 27 of how God had mercy on Epaphroditus and on him by sparing him from death “so that I would not have one sorrow after another.” What was the first sorrow, Paul, on top of which Epaphroditus would have added another? No doubt, Paul would have said, “My imprisonment and being unable to see my brothers and sisters in Christ.” But Paul, didn’t you tell us to rejoice in all circumstances (1:18, 4:4)? If Epaphroditus had died, wouldn’t you have wanted to rejoice that he was with the Lord? “Yes,” I think Paul would say, “I do rejoice that Jesus has won the victory over death and that he promises us the gift of eternal life” but I also feel the sadness and grief when I lose a dear friend…just as Jesus wept at the grave of Lazarus (John 11). Rejoicing in the Lord does not mean my life is free of sorrow or sadness…but the deep conviction and settled hope that God is good even if the news isn’t.

Paul knew sorrow, and then again in v. 28 Paul says that he is the more eager to send Epaphroditus back to Philippi so that he might be “less anxious.” But Paul, don't you say in ch 4, “Do not worry about anything, ” but surrender it to God "with prayer and thanksgiving?” “Yes, I did,” he would presumably say, “But this is something which I am also practicing. It’s not theoretical…it is a real, daily, dependence upon Jesus.”

I am truly reeling from news this week of the death of one of my colleagues, a gifted pastor who took his own life. Evidently he suffered from major depression. It made me realize again that we desperately need friends who will look for the signs of depression and hurt and offer love and support (and this is by no means to say that he did not have that support). Some of the signs of clinical depression are an inability to sleep or sleeping all the time, no interest or pleasure in all or most activities, significant weight loss or gain, feelings of worthlessness -- often several of these experienced at the same time). Jesus’ followers are not immune to depression. They’re not immune to sadness; and they should be on the front lines of those who are looking out for those who are in need.

Finally, Paul's words about Timothy and Epaphroditus remind us of the principle of honoring. Of Ephaphroditus, Paul charges the Philippians with these words: “Welcome him then in the Lord with all joy, and honor such people because he came close to death for the work of Christ….” Friends honor one another. Paul was filled with gratitude for his brother and co-worker and fellow soldier Epaphroditus who risked his life to help him; and his words model how we should “outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom. 12: 10). In particular, we are to honor our friends and co-workers for their sacrificial service to Christ and to others. True friends invest in their relationship, they share common interests, they are honest…and they show honor.

The other day I was watching one of those amazing Planet Earth documentaries produced by the BBC which captures some incredible footage of the oceanic white tip shark that roams the blue water of the Pacific. After the documentary is over, there is an epilogue, a "diary" that shows how they got this incredible footage…the days they spent on the boat hunting for the sharks, then chumming the water to attract them, then diving into the water without any protection, not even air tanks -- relying only on observation, nerves and experience to dictate how long they stayed underwater in their company. At several points, the sharks get so close to the divers that they are literally bumping into the cameras. I watched in amazement that no one was attacked or killed! But what impressed me was their courage, how they watched out for one another; and when it became too intense their willingness to say “Let’s get out of here.” It’s one thing to say on the boat, “We’re going to film white tipped sharks today,” it’s quite another to get in the water and do it. These were not just co-workers on a fishing expedition, these were friends beneath the surface (literally) sharing a common passion, risking their lives together for a great adventure; and their heroism was honored by those who made the documentary.

Jesus said, "No one has greater love than this, that he lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13). He risked everything, he laid down his life for us whom he calls his friends and followers. His was and is the model of true friendship which Paul saw reflected in the lives of Timothy and Epaphroditus. I need those kinds of friends, friends like Paul, Timothy, and Epaphroditus…but more importantly I want to be that kind of friend…how about you?

King Jesus, we are tired of superficial relationships which are based on self-interest; that lack commitment, compassion, responsibility, and cost us nothing. We pray for the gift of genuine friends, and the will to be one. We pray for friendship forged by common interests and shared priorities, especially when they unite us in service to you and your interests in this world. We thank you for the close friends with whom we can be honest and transparent, friends with whom we can dream, weep and laugh; and in particular for those who encourage and run with us as we persevere to the finish line of faith. Such friends we honor with our words, with our prayers, and with our mutual service to you, our true master and forever Friend. Amen!