Monday, October 03, 2005
Sermon - Pentecost 20 - Philippians 3:12-21
20th Sunday after Pentecost – October 2nd 2005
“Winning Heaven – And More!”
I. Introduction – Whether you are a football fan or not, you’ve probably heard that the Green Bay Packers are having somewhat of an off year so far. For a team which is used to winning most of its games, especially those at home, Brett Farve and company have not looked so good in these first few weeks of the season. Of course, it goes without saying that the goal of any football team is to win – and hopefully, maybe even make it to the Super Bowl – the big game. It’s what they strive for all season – and for many players – their whole career. It might already be too late for the packers this year, but in sports, “there’s always next year”.
A common sports proverb holds that “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing”. And in the Christian faith, winning is important too. Paul often uses the metaphor of competition to explain aspects of our faith. We have a finish line, we are competing against foes, and there is a prize awaiting us at the end. Paul encourages us today to look forward – to winning Heaven, and more!
II. The Goal of the Christian Faith
Paul uses the imagery of competition here to instruct the Philippians (and us) about the forward-looking nature of our faith. That we should be, like Paul was, focused on the goal, the prize, the future. The finish line, if you will.
There is much in this life that would keep our eyes looking downward. The cares of worldly life want to direct our attention away from the goal. Paul is aware of this struggle – he uses words like “press on” and “straining” to indicate that it is not always easy to stay focused.
This forward looking mentality is how a mature Christian thinks. As we grow in our faith more and more, we see clearer and clearer the insignificance of this world compared to the magnificence of the world to come. More on that later…
Finally, notice the connection of the goal with the one who makes it possible. Paul hopes to take hold of “that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me”. In other words, Christ came so that we would reach the goal, the finish line of heaven. God has “called [us] heavenward in Christ Jesus”. Without Jesus, talk of our future is meaningless. But with Jesus, and his cross, we have a future. Still, there are enemies who oppose this…
III. Enemies of the Cross of Christ
Just as in any sporting competition, we too have an opposing team. The captain, of course, is our old adversary the Devil. But the “enemies of the cross of Christ” abound. Paul sadly notes that many are against Christ – and are more concerned about earthly things.
These are the ones who are not looking up to the Cross, to Heaven and to Christ. But downward and inward, to their own selfish wants (their god is their stomach), to their own sinful pleasures (their glory is their shame). And so their goal, their destiny, is destruction. Enemies of the cross of Christ are OUR enemies too. Those who seek to silence Christianity. Those who ridicule and mock believers in Christ. Maybe even in our own families, there are some who, however subtly, oppose Christ and his cross. Enemies abound. Paul isn’t just trying to make us paranoid.
The fact that there are enemies is a problem. But the solution is not for us to carry out. Instead, the cross itself, and Christ himself bring the solution. Sin, Death and the Devil were defeated at the cross. As for human enemies of the cross – they are handled in two ways. Either they are destroyed at the final judgment, or they are destroyed in the waters of baptism – where God makes his enemies into his friends, sinners into saints, and haters into dearly beloved children. Once, we too were enemies of the cross of Christ. But now we, like Paul, have been called heavenward. We are now on the winning team.
I remember at my small college in New York, our soccer team struggled in division, what, 5 or 6? Anyway, for some reason there was a European student studying at our campus, and he joined the team. He was amazing. He could have started for a division 1 school. He probably could have become a professional. When he wanted to, he could pretty much, single-handedly win a game for his team. I don’t know if that school will ever have a player like that again.
Jesus Christ is our team’s “secret weapon”. He’s the only player that really matters on this team. In fact he is not only the captain, but the coach and owner, the offense and the defense. He is the star player who was once “injured” but can’t be kept off the field.
And just when it looked like he was losing, he was winning – the greatest victory of all time. In fact he wins through losing – he pardons by being condemned, he gains life by dying.
This is what Lutherans call the “Theology of the Cross” – the idea that God’s best and most important work of winning souls, is done through weakness, and shame, and “losing”. And so with us, Jesus says, “he who would seek his life will lose it, but he who loses his life for my sake, will gain it”. Winning by losing. Making enemies into friends. This is God’s way in Christ. This is the pattern for us to follow too.
It means that Christians don’t have to be “winners” to win. We don’t have to have the biggest house, the fastest car, the best job. We don’t need to attend the trendiest church with the fanciest sound-system. We don’t need to be famous, or wealthy, or super-educated. God takes the “losers” of this world and makes them “winners” in Christ. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do our best in life, but it does mean we keep our eyes on the finish line, and let God be concerned with winning us the victory.
IV. Heaven – and More!
There is no super-bowl trophy in the Christian faith, but there is a prize. And it’s even greater than you might think.
For one, let us not too quickly pass over the benefits Christ brings us IN THIS LIFE. For right here and now, we have forgiveness in Christ. And that forgiveness brings the believer a peace that the world cannot give. A quiet conscience, a calm assurance that God is on our side – and that in the end, everything will work out for the good of His people. Even more - Paul says we are already citizens of heaven! Even before we get there. That promise also brings us comfort and peace. Part of the prize is ours already, right now! But there is more…
Most Christians know from an early age that when we die our spirit goes to heaven. That’s great, and it’s true. But is that really as good as it gets? Is that, ultimately the prize we are looking for? NO! There’s more!
Certainly Paul mentions being called heavenward in Christ, but he goes on at the end of this passage to tell even more of what we have waiting for us: “Jesus Christ, who by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body”.
You see, the promised prize for Christians is not just some dis-embodied existence of our spirit or soul floating around somewhere with God (as great as that will be). We have something better awaiting. A new body, a glorified body, a resurrected body – like the one that Christ has!
He is the firstborn of the dead, and like him, there will be many more born from the dead. You and I and all believers will enjoy eternal life in our bodies – perfected bodies – but physical bodies, living forever. This is something we don’t talk so much about in the Church. We get stuck on heaven – and as good as that is – we still look forward to “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting”. That’s the real prize! If heaven is the division title – The resurrection of the body and the life everlasting – that’s the super bowl.
Since Paul’s time, Christians have been looking forward to the goal. And today the advice for us is the same. Look heavenward, to the finish line, where Jesus Christ has called you.
And since Paul’s time, and long before, the enemies of Christ have loomed. But we have the star player, Jesus Christ, who defeats all the enemies.
And when that final day comes, and Jesus returns from his heavenly throne, we get the final reward – the prize – a glorious, resurrected body to live with him forever. With Paul, we press on – toward this goal – In Christ our Lord, Amen.
Paul encourages Christians to press on toward the prize – a citizenship in heaven we already have, and a glorious body which will be ours at the resurrection. We take hold of all of this only through Christ, who won it for us.