The church in Philippi, like the Church in Corinth and Galatia, was a church with some contention and conflict. It is clear that there some who were arguing proudly, for a variety of reasons: their Jewish heritage, their Gnostic theology, or simply their world view. You can imagine the scene. Basically it comes down to a contest between Paul and some unnamed opponents concerning who is better and more qualified.
Last week I began arguing that Paul puts to rest some of this arguing and contention. He does not have the sense that we should all think the same and agree on everything. He describes what he means to be of one mind. One mind is concerned about our experience of Christ, and Christ’s love for us, and how that causes us to act in return with Christ and toward others. It is important, then, to understand that faith is not an intellectual exercise, that is, it is not concerned with what we know and sharing that opinion. Rather, faith is a relational exercise, an expression of the relationship we have with God the Father through Jesus Christ. To be of one mind comes out of our common relationship not our common knowledge.
This week, however, he provides counter argument to the claims of worthiness of his opponents. If they can claim a Jewish heritage, he can claim even better. In the end, however, all this counts for nothing, and we hear Paul’s ultimate justification to the Philippians, “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, let us press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 3:13b-14b)
In 2008, those of you who are supporters of Geelong will know the sense of pressing on toward the goal for the prize. The expectation of a grand final victory following a year of exceptional football. The disappointment and even anger of the failure to win the grand final speaks of the hope, the goal, the prize unachieved and lost. You will be pleased to know that, following grand final wins in 2007, 2009 and now 2011 (4 grand finals and 3 premierships in five years isn’t bad), most of us are over that now and, with the end of the football season, we return to normal human expression – this means for some, the cricket is coming.
There is a difference with Paul, however. Despite using sporting metaphors of victory, there is no, will be no, disappointment. The prize is assured, even if it is not yet achieved. Paul stands, if you like, on the eve of the grand final knowing that his team does win, but the grand final is yet to take place.
Paul does not define what the prize is, he does not even speak in terms that the theologians call “realised eschatology” – the prize being ours now, but not yet fulfilled. Is the prize the victor’s wreath, the crown of glory? Is it the acceptance by his Saviour, ‘Welcome my good and faithful servant?’ Is it the hope of heaven? This stands confrontationally with Paul’s opponents, those who would claim that they already have the prize. I suspect that Paul does not define what the prize is because it is actually not the most important thing.
Like a holidays, sometimes the destination is not the point, but the journey to the destination – how you get there. The point of the call that is upon Paul’s life is not to obtain the goal, but the work he needs to do in the present, the work of bringing transformation to the world so that what is done on earth is as it is in heaven.
There are many passages that are used to make argument for the importance of a vision and goals for a church’s mission. But it seems to me that this is the most significant one, “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, let us press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 3:13b-14b) We press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God “in Christ Jesus”.
Being “in Christ Jesus” is Paul’s goal. Paul’s opponents had a variety of goals. Perhaps, those who believed they were superior because of their Jewish heritage or those who believed that they had the knowledge to claim they had already received the prize, or those who claimed that their resurrection had already taken place, or simply those who had adopted a pluralistic understanding. Paul does not make it clear, although the letter to the Philippians seems to identify that all these opinions, or goals, were present. We must be clear about our ultimate goal and purpose, for everything comes from that.
Customarily we have identified our goal as church as being concerned with having a building to worship in, having a priest to lead worship and providing a stipend for that priest. Even though we have developed a practice of establishing mission actions plans with vision statements and mission statement is important, we can make the mistake of allowing these to become our ultimate goal. At present we are praying for a doubling of our congregation so that we can employ a second person to minister to our families – parents, children and youth. But it would also be a mistake to think of growing the number of people in our church is our goal.
Despite the reference to the church growing in numbers, even thousands, in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, it really wasn’t their first intention to grow the numbers of people within the church. The growth in numbers came as a result of their being faithful to the call that was upon them “in Christ Jesus”.
To grow the numbers of people in our church is not our goal. To have sufficient finances to operate our mission activities is not our goal. To be theologically correct is not our goal. To be able to quote the bible is not our goal. To be able to employ another person for ministry, or even our Vicar, is not our goal. To be able to maintain our buildings is not our goal. To be good enough to get to heaven is not our goal. To do sufficient good works and help the poor and the marginalised is not our goal. To maintain a particular Anglican tradition, or custom, is not our goal. To be true to the prayer book, the Thirty-nine Articles, the Creeds the ordinances of the church are not our goals. To be perfect, and to reflect perfect Christian community is not our goal. Not even to think and agree on everything is our goal. The list could go on about the things we set up as goals for our life together. All of them good and proper things, but they are not our ultimate goals.
All these things are the fruit of our faithfulness to the ultimate goal, to be “in Christ Jesus”. Paul understands this as having a living relation ship with God through Christ Jesus, his Son, and our Lord.
I don’t know what your definition of the prize is, but how you define the prize will determine what your actions will be. Our goals will reveal what others see as important in us. I wonder what those outside St Stephens consider important to us by our life and actions. Do they see what Paul called the Philippians to, “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, let us press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus,” (Phil 3:13b-14b) or do they see something else.
If we want all those things we have identified as important in our strategic plan, our hopes and dreams we have for this church of St Stephens, then we need to ask the question, “How well am I expressing the goal of being ‘in Christ Jesus’”? To paraphrase an old and popular chorus, “seek first your being “in Christ Jesus” and all these things will be added to you as well”. For this is how we forget “what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, let us press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus,” (Phil 3:13b-14b)