The following was preached at Veedersburg and Hillsboro UMC on Sunday, February 28, 2010. The text for this week’s message is Philippians 3:17-4:1.
Last week, we talked a little bit about the journey of the Christian faith. And it really is just that, a journey. In our Wesleyan theological tradition, we have an understanding of God’s grace that is shaped by this idea of a journey. We talked about the beginning step in our journey as we looked at what Paul had to say in Romans 10. The beginning of our faith journey is when we confess with our mouths that Jesus Christ is Lord, and believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead. At the point when we make that confession, that Jesus Christ is Lord in our lives, God’s justifying grace declares us not guilty of the sin in our lives. Justification is a legal term that points to the absolution of a crime. It is as though it never happened. But that’s just the first step in a journey that we go on for the rest of our lives.
The rest of the journey in the Christian faith is about drawing closer and closer to Christ. It is unrealistic to have the expectation that once you confess Jesus as Lord in your life that things will automatically get easier and everything will just fall into place. In fact, often, it is quite the opposite. When a person first comes to faith in Jesus Christ, things seem to stack up against that person. Times of crisis in our lives are the times when we are most vulnerable. Those are the kinds of times when we come to a fork in the road on our journey in the faith. We have decisions that we have to make.
What we are going to see in today’s passage is that there are two different paths that we can travel when it comes to faith.
There’s one path where we can press forward in spite of all the difficulties and continue to imitate Christ, and consequently become more and more like him. But there’s also another path where we fall away from the faith. On this path, we become less and less like Christ, until we have even forgotten the very confession that caused us to follow him in the first place. To begin with, let’s get some background information on Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi.
As with all of the books of the New Testament, there is some debate as to exactly when and where this letter was written. Reading through the letter as a whole, it is clear that Paul was in prison when he was writing it. There are references to him being “in chains,” as well as the imperial guard and Caesar’s household. A majority of scholars would place the letter as being written around 62 A.D. from Rome.
Philippi was one of the first churches that Paul founded in modern-day Europe. And you can read about that in Acts 16. Philippi was an important city in the Roman Empire. Luke tells us in Acts 16 that it was the leading city in the district of Macedonia, and that it was a Roman colony. It is significant that Philippi was a Roman colony because that meant all who lived in Philippi were considered Roman citizens. They did not need to pay taxes, and they were under the protection of the Roman army. In fact, there was a Roman garrison that was stationed in Philippi. It was also a key city along the Egnatian Way, a major trade route in the Roman Empire. To say the least, Philippi was an important city in Paul’s time.
Typically, as we read through Paul’s letters there is almost always some kind of issue that is being addressed. However, in Philippians, there really isn’t an issue that Paul is teaching about. Philippians is primarily a letter of encouragement from Paul to the Christians in Philippi. Paul has been in prison, but the Philippian church has continued to support him. What’s important to know about Roman prisons is that they were not a place where one was punished. They were a place where one was held until the end of one’s trial. They were holding tanks. A person in prison would be fined, beaten, exiled, executed, or released. That was about it. At this point, Paul doesn’t know what will happen to him. And yet, in spite of all that is hanging over his head, Paul is writing a letter of encouragement to the Philippians.
Throughout the letter, Paul encourages the Philippians to press on in their faith. There is going to be difficult times ahead, and they needed to hear this message from somebody who is in the middle of facing difficulties. When we get to today’s passage, Paul is telling them to be imitators of Christ. Actually, what he says is that they should imitate Paul and his fellow workers in ministry, who, in turn, are imitating Christ.
What is really neat here is the imagery that Paul uses at the end of verse 17. The word that is translated as “walk” is understood in the sense of how a person lives; how a person carries himself in life. And the word for “example” is sometimes understood as a stamp or a mold. In other words, Paul is encouraging the people to mold their lives in such a way that they are following his example of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. And the thing about a mold is that it is something to which one must be shaped. Think about that imagery for a minute.
When the U.S. Mint makes a coin, it doesn’t just pour out the metal and hope that it comes out in the right shape. They are very intentional about making a pattern, heating up the metal and pouring it into that mold, so that when it does cool, it is in the shape that they want it. It is an intentional process. The same is true for those who want to be followers of Christ. People don’t follow Christ by accident. It has to be a very intentional decision to follow Christ, and to continue following Christ. The first step in the journey of the Christian faith is to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, but there is going to come a point, maybe even multiple points in this journey, when a person is going to have to decide whether or not to continue following Christ.
In Bible study this past week, we looked at a turning point in the Gospel of Mark. Follow me here, and I promise this will come back together. Jesus asks the disciples who people say that he is, and then he makes it more personal and asks them who they say he is. Peter replies, “You are the Christ,” and he’s absolutely right, but he doesn’t fully understand what he is saying when he makes this confession. And that is so true for many people today as well. Many people make the confession that Jesus is the Christ, but they don’t really understand what that means.
And so, Jesus defines what that really means – that he will have to be rejected, suffer and die, but on the third day he will be raised from the dead. Peter pulls Jesus aside at this point, and Mark tells us that Peter rebuked Jesus for his misunderstanding of the role of the Messiah. It is actually kind of comical if you think about it. Peter declares Jesus to be the Christ, and then proceeds to tell Jesus what this means. In response, Jesus rebukes Peter and calls the people over for some serious teaching of what it means to be a follower of Christ.
In Mark 8:34, Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” The short version of the discussion that we had on this verse is that there are really two things going on here. The first is self-denial and the second is cross bearing. If these two are in place, then following Jesus is the logical result. And one cannot follow Jesus without either of these two things. You can’t just do self-denial and follow Jesus, and you can’t just do cross bearing and follow Jesus. It has to be both.
The Greek word for “denial” points to an intentional act of disassociation. So, when Jesus is saying that a follow needs to deny himself, he is saying that one must disassociate from the things that put oneself head of Jesus. We can’t be like Peter. We can’t pull Jesus aside and let him know how things are supposed to go. That’s not following Jesus. That is using Jesus to justify your self-desires. Big difference. And now, as we come back to Paul’s writing, we see that there were some who didn’t practice this self-denial.
There were some who Paul calls “enemies of the cross of Christ” because they went their own way. They were more concerned with their wants and their desires, than they were with following Jesus. In verse 19, Paul says that their god “is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.” In other words, their desires guide them, not Jesus. And notice something very important here, Paul is not talking about non-Christians. He is talking about people who once made the confession that Jesus is Lord, but have now gone their own way.
These are the people that came to the fork in the road, and instead of following down the narrow path that Jesus is on, they decided that the broad path looked a lot more fun. They decided that the broad path looked easier. It was more pleasing to their personal desires. But here’s the thing, but paths go somewhere. We make the decision as to which path we travel on our journey, but let’s not be fooled into thinking that both paths lead to the same destination because they don’t. Paul is very clear where that broad path leads. It leads to destruction. This is not an easy word to hear. Is anybody else uncomfortable this morning?
Thankfully, this is not where Paul leaves us today. In contrast to those who decide to follow their own desires, those whose end is destruction. Paul comforts the Philippians by letting them know that those who continue on the narrow path, those who follow after Jesus have their citizenship in heaven – the ultimate destination on the narrow path. And remember, citizenship was serious business for the people in Philippi.
Citizenship is the definition of where our loyalty lies. Paul is reminding us that ultimately, our citizenship, our allegiance, our loyalty has to be to Jesus Christ. Earlier in the letter, in 1:27, Paul tells the reader to “let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” This can also be translated “behave as citizens worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Ultimate allegiance is seen in our self-denial and decision to follow after Christ, even when it is difficult, even when the consequences of following him are dangerous. That is cross bearing, the second component of what it means to follow Jesus.
We bear our cross when following Jesus, following the will of God causes us to face consequences that seem disproportionate. For the first disciples, bearing their cross meant execution for every last one of them. For many Christians in the Roman Empire, bearing their cross meant facing the lions in the Coliseum. For many Christians in today’s world, bearing their cross means facing prison time for sharing the gospel, or capital punishment for converting to the Christian faith. But the simple truth is that we have to decide.
Do we want to live our lives on the broad path? Do we want to live a life chasing after our own desires, or having our belly as our God as Paul says? Do we want to have our minds set on the concerns of this world, things that will pass in time and have little to no bearing on eternity? Or do we embrace the words of Jesus? Do we confess that Jesus is Lord and live our lives in such a way that we are following Jesus? Do we remember that our citizenship, our final loyalty, is in heaven? Y’all, that is what the season of Lent is about.
It is about entering into the Christian community. It is about coming back into the Christian community. And truly living life, an abundant life, in relationship with our Creator. When it is all said and done, we do have a choice. It is one that has to be made, and when we don’t make it, we have made it. I’m not going to stand up here today and tell you that it is going to be easy because it is not always easy to follow Jesus – that’s why it is a narrow path. If it was easy, more people would go on it, and the path would be much broader. So as we continue our journey towards Easter, make a decision. Make a decision as to which path you want to be on, but know this – each path does have a destination.