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Lectionary Sermons: Lent

Straining Forward to What Lies Ahead

By Jonathan Bennett

Lent 5, Year C:
Isaiah 43:16-21, Philippians 3:8-14, Luke 20:9-19, Psalm 126

Today's Epistle reading is a wonderful passage from St. Paul's letter to the Philippians and perfect for the season of Lent which we are now in. These verses are also a good theological summary of Paul, our patron saint and his amazing life. I guess we would say that Paul talked the talk AND walked the walk. Everything he told the Philippians to do, he had done or would do himself.

St. Paul is often a controversial figure and unfortunately I've heard many Christian leaders openly disavow Paul. But our faith would be much poorer without him and I thank God for his life and influence. Even his critics would agree that he was an intense man who believed strongly in his convictions and lived them to fullest.

Paul did not start out as a good Christian. In fact, from the Christian perspective, Paul was anything but good. Paul was Jewish, of the tribe of Benjamin. He studied under the famous rabbi Gamaliel and became a devout Pharisee. He was very zealous for the Jewish law and, consequently a natural opponent of Christianity. Unlike some of the Jewish leaders, he was not content just to ignore Christianity, but actively persecuted the faithful. Paul was even present at the stoning of Stephen, who was the Church's first martyr. We are told that it had Paul's approval. Not exactly a Christian hero. St. Paul is, however, one of the textbook examples of how God changes hearts and saves souls.

One day while Paul was traveling, he saw a bright light; falling down and blinded he miraculously encountered the Risen Jesus. After this incredible experience, Paul repented and directed his zeal to following Jesus Christ. This persecutor of the Church would become an apostle, the church's chief theologian, and the one whom God chose to bring the Gospel and salvation to the Gentiles. That's us! We owe Paul a huge debt of gratitude!

We get most of our information about Paul's life from the Book of Acts and Paul's letters. Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians he had: "great labors, many imprisonments, countless floggings and was often near death. Five times he received 39 lashes from the Jews. Three times he was beaten with rods. Once he received a stoning. Three times he was shipwrecked at sea, for a night and a day he was adrift at sea." Later Paul tells how in Damascus, the king wanted to arrest him, but Paul was let down through a basket and escaped. Eventually Paul was sent to Rome where he was put in prison. Yet, even the experience of a Roman prison did not curb Paul's enthusiasm. We learn in Acts that Paul even preached the Gospel while in prison! I think Mel Gibson should do a movie of Paul's life next. It has all the adventure of Indiana Jones!

Although the biblical tradition is silent on Paul's final fate and later years, Christian history has filled in bits and pieces about the end of his life. According to tradition he was martyred for his faith. Spared crucifixion because he was a Roman citizen, Paul was beheaded instead, around AD 67.
For Jesus' sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them rubbish in order to gain Christ

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Paul gave up a life of power and prestige, the life of a Pharisee, an admired religious leader, to be involved in a persecuted sect that worshipped a crucified man. And yet Paul considered his worldly honors, his scholastic achievements, his lofty status, rubbish. The Greek word is actually vulgar and could be translated as a swear word. But after encountering Christ, even Paul's past, certainly worthy of bragging, was worthless mere rubbish.
That I may share his sufferings, becoming like him in death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection of the dead.

Paul considered it an honor to suffer for his Lord and the Kingdom of God. As I mentioned earlier, Paul went through much hardship and danger and had many close calls with death. Eventually, Paul even gave the ultimate sacrifice for his faith and died at the hands of the Romans, just like Jesus his Lord. And Paul did attain the resurrection of the dead and is alive, just as Jesus is alive. Paul received the martyr's crown of glory.
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own because Jesus Christ has made me his own. Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Paul was not perfect and he recognized that. But, he didn't dwell on his shortcomings, but rather took strength in his position as one belonging to Christ. He forgot his past and only looked ahead and not just looking, but straining forward.

There is a story of a little boy who was given his first slingshot. He practiced in the woods, but he could never hit his target. As he came back to his family's back yard, he spied his mom's pet duck. On an impulse he took aim and let fly. He had no intention of killing the duck, but the stone hit, and the duck fell dead.

The boy panicked. Desperately he hid the dead duck in the woodpile, only to look up and see his sister watching. Sally had seen it all, but she said nothing. After lunch that day, his mom said, "Sally, let's wash the dishes." But Sally said, "Eric told me he wanted to help in the kitchen today. Didn't you, Eric?" And she whispered to him, "Remember the duck! So Eric did the dishes. Later the father asked if the children wanted to go fishing. Mom said, "I'm sorry, but I need Sally to help make supper." Sally smiled and said, "That's all taken care of. Eric wants to do it." Again she whispered, "Remember the duck." Eric stayed while Sally went fishing. After several days of Eric doing both his chores and Sally's, finally he couldn't stand it. He confessed to his father that he'd killed the duck. "I know, Eric," he said, giving him a hug. "I was standing at the window and saw the whole thing. Because I love you, I forgive you. I wondered how long you would let Sally make a slave of you (Lucado, Max, http://www.inchristalone.org/SlaveForgiven.html)

As one who had much Christian blood on his hands, Paul had every reason to let his past enslave him. He was responsible either directly or indirectly for the deaths of many of his fellow saints. Yet, Paul also understood the radical nature of repentance and forgiveness. He was no longer enslaved to his sin of the past. God's love and forgiveness were too powerful. It is this radical repentance and forgiveness that allows the persecutor to be in the company of heaven with the persecuted. When they have faith in Christ Jesus, those distinctions, become, quite literally things of the past. Rather than looking back, Paul strained forward, not to some idealistic optimism, but rather to Jesus Christ, the beginning, middle and end of all that is. Paul instead pressed on toward the goal, the kingdom of God in Christ to receive the prize of eternal life.

The lives of Paul and even other Saints seem very extraordinary to us. And there is a reason: they were! Yet, our Christian journeys can take the path of St. Paul, and in fact they must take that path, even if it seems winding and incredibly slow.

Paul suffered the loss of all things and counted them rubbish in order to gain Christ. I don't know about you, but I take great pride in my accomplishments. I have my diplomas on my wall and a padded resume. They certainly aren't rubbish! And I don't think Paul would consider them rubbish in all ways. I certainly don't. Yet, as Christians, we must always remember that Christ is the focus, not our honors and accolades. And, if you think about it, the privilege is being in a relationship with the living God and knowing that we are his children with eternal life: next to that pretty much any accomplishment, no matter how big is temporary, fleeting and in the grand scheme of things, totally insignificant. And, especially when these temporary things get in the way of serving the eternal God to our fullest, they really are, well...rubbish.

Paul shared in Christ's sufferings, becoming like him in death and attained the resurrection of the dead. Many early Christians died for their faith. In Church history, the 2nd and 3rd centuries are often called the age of the martyrs because during that time many people died for their faith in Christ. Some refer to the 20th and now the 21st century as the new age of the martyrs because so many people are dying today for their Christian faith. In America we can be pretty insulated, but we are the minority even among Anglicans. Most Anglicans are poor, uneducated, black or brown, and living in danger for their faith. Many will get the chance to quite literally "share Christ's sufferings and become like him in death" and whether or not their name is ever remembered to us, they stand with the other martyrs who have received the crown of glory.

Although some day we may be asked to make the ultimate sacrifice for Christ, and I pray if I get the chance to have the grace to do it, but most of us by birth and geography probably will probably be lucky enough to never have to make that decision. As Western Christians, we have often had to create ways to share in the sufferings and death of Christ. We do it through parts of the Church year. And we are in the midst of one of those parts of the church year now: Lent and Holy Week. During Lent, through liturgical simplicity and fasting we try to get a small glimpse of Christ's sacrifice by giving up a part of our lives. In Lent we try to confront sin head on and, like athletes, train to live a more holy life. Yet sometimes we seem to make little progress. Paul did not obtain perfection; he wasn't already perfect, but he still pressed on.

Forgetting what lay behind and straining forward to what was ahead, Paul pressed on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Like St. Paul, we are not perfect and still sin. The purple covered crosses, the lack of Alleluia in the liturgy, and the general penitential aspects of the Lenten season are Sunday morning reminders of our own sinfulness. I'm sure we encounter many more during the week.

Our culture tends to dislike Lent because it seems to "negative" or "gloomy". Regrettably, there are many Christians, bowing to secular culture, who deny the concept of sin itself and also dismiss sin as too negative or bad for self-esteem. But that misses the point of Lent. Lent is not only about focusing on our sins. Rather Lent is about identifying sins, asking forgiveness, receiving repentance, making amends if necessary, and moving on, yes moving on. Repentance is not about feeling perpetually guilty (although that may bring us to repentance), but is about being set free from our sins AND the accompanying guilt. Repentance implies forgiveness, which brings joy. Ironically, those who deny the reality of sin end up creating the gloomiest scenario of all: a life of slavery without the freedom that comes from repentance and forgiveness. A whole lifetime of hearing "remember the duck" when their loving father is waiting with open arms to give the gift of forgiveness. Sure, we may have to deal with the consequences of our sins, especially the grave ones; after all God is just. But we are still completely forgiven and loved by him. Instead of living like Eric, being constantly being burdened and enslaved by our past, we have the privilege of going before God, repenting and receiving forgiveness, forgiveness that makes no one a slave, but rather sets us free. Sin and guilt enslave, God sets free.

There is too much work to be done for God's Kingdom in the present to think about the past. Like in Paul's life, we don't strain forward because we hope to achieve some sort of self-actualization, but rather, we focus on our goal of Jesus Christ, by whose Spirit we are continually transformed and perfected. But how do we escape the bondage of our sins or the guilt of the past? How can we emancipate ourselves? How do we stop hearing our personal version of "remember the duck?" In spite of a multi-million dollar industry of self-help books the answer is clear: we cannot do it ourselves. Christ is the only one who can truly set us free.

We do not strain forward to our goal because of anything within our own humanity, but only because we have our hope set on Jesus Christ, the object of our faith, the one who makes everything new, even ourselves! What a wonderful goal, Jesus Christ, the living, risen Lord and Savior! But Paul also mentions a prize. Enduring to the end, God grants us eternal life in his perfect and loving presence. What a thought! It's no wonder that Paul spoke and LIVED as he did. With a goal and a prize like that, no wonder everything is else is considered rubbish!

I hope this has been a fruitful Lent for all of us, that we have been able to examine our lives and grow in the faith. As Lent comes to an end, I challenge all of us to continue our self-examination and repentance in order to receive God's radical grace of forgiveness. A forgiveness that we can only receive as a gift from our loving Father. A forgiveness that frees us from dwelling on what lies behind and instead pushes us, like St. Paul, to strain forward to what lies ahead: the goal of Christ Jesus and the prize of eternal life in his loving presence. Amen.

Delivered at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Chillicothe, OH on March 28th, 2004. The author has since become Catholic.

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