June 11th, 2018


What’s your “one”?

Philippians 3:12-4:1


Singular passion

The subject of my sermon introduction won’t surprise most of you. Linda and I have just returned from Hawaii. Hawaii’s a beautiful place and, from a distance anyway, a scary place right now when you see videos of the lava flow. There were many experiences of travel and food and weather and culture and reading and projects and sleep (or lack thereof) connected to this trip. Of all the subjects I could begin with, my focus is only one:  our grandson Arlo, now almost six months old.

I do want to be sensitive on this subject because I know many people would love to have grandchildren, or even children, but don’t. We ourselves waited much longer to be grandparents than we thought we would. Knowing what the waiting is like just makes us more humbly grateful for that little bundle of joy.

It’s been 37 years since our own firstborn came into the world, and I suppose I had forgotten the extent to which everything revolves around the baby, especially the first baby. Five human beings shared a Hawaii home for 17 days, but the schedules and conversations of the four adults revolved around the one. Does Arlo need to be fed or changed? Have we read him books today? Did you see him in that Jolly Jumper? Does he look like Dad or Mom? Did you get a picture of that smile? Shh! Arlo’s sleeping.

If you haven’t lived through it, you might think that this is all oppressive. Quite the opposite. There’s such joy and fascination and intrigue through this focus on the one. We did other things, mind you. We cooked meals and washed dishes, we went to the aquarium and the beach, we did lawn work and built a planter for the back porch. We slept and showered, went to church, and sent post cards home, but every task and plan joyfully revolved around one 5-month, 17-pound, bundle of hope and love.

Today’s text in Paul’s letter to the Philippians includes so many words and topics worthy of our time. What most captured my attention was the word “one.” The Apostle Paul’s memories of his past, concerns about his present, and possibilities for his future were no less varied than yours or mine, yet his focus was one, a singular passion.

Chasing the goal post (12-14)

When Paul begins this paragraph, “Not that I have already obtained all this” (12), we should want to know what “this” is. It’s what he expressed in verse 10 – to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, and to become like him. This is what Pastor Amy called in last week’s sermon the “cruciform” life – the life that conforms to not only to Jesus’ life but also to his death. It’s a life that embraces suffering for others as Jesus did. It’s a life that yields personal rights and prerogatives in following Jesus’ example.

Paul has told us his deep desire to know Christ and be like him, but now he adds, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal” (14, NIV). Some versions say “or have already been made perfect.” Hold that “perfect” idea for a moment. Paul is doing a couple of things here. First, he’s contrasting his own perspective with that of the false teachers who believe that a major component of the Christian faith is keeping all of the Jewish law perfectly – and that it’s possible to do so. Earlier in this chapter Paul says he tried that – never was there a better Jew or Pharisee than he. Now in Christ he regards even the effort to do so as garbage.

Second, Paul is trying to encourage his Philippian family (he calls them “brothers and sisters” three times in today’s text). Remember, this is primarily a friendship letter. From the opening verse (1:1) Paul introduced himself not as “the apostle” but as “the slave of Jesus Christ.” It’s a humble letter, and here Paul is reminding his readers that if they struggle with not getting the Christian life right, he’s in the same situation.

He hasn’t achieved it yet, but he continues, “…but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (12). These words are not just of academic interest to me. They have been personal for Linda and me for more than forty years.

During our senior year in Bible college, we were required to give a chapel message on a Scripture of our choosing. This is the text I chose. Last year Linda and some other ladies taught a summer Bible study on Philippians. Chapter 3 was Linda’s choice to teach. Another reason this verse is so personal for us is that before our wedding we together chose a life verse, Hosea 6:3, which begins, “So let us know, let us press on to know the Lord.” It’s quite possible that’s the line from the Hebrew Scriptures that shaped the Apostle Paul’s own words in Philippians 3.

The word for “press on,” as Linda pointed out in her Bible study, is the same as “persecute.” Paul knew what it meant to chase after, hunt down, follow after. For Paul this too evokes humility. He wants to “press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (12). When he was on his way to Damascus to pursue Christians, Paul found that the Christ Jesus he was persecuting was chasing hard after him. Paul would never have come to Christ if Jesus hadn’t tracked him down. If you think you came to your faith or your spiritual growth or your job or your marriage or your children or your privileges just because you worked hard or somehow deserved it, you’ve never really captured Christian humility.

Paul repeats his partial progress in faith in verse 13: “Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it,” to set up for what I see as the key word in the whole passage. The next phrase in the NIV reads, “But one thing I do.” In the Greek it’s far more of an abrupt, staccato exclamation. It’s only two words (not five), and because the conjunction often comes second in Greek, the exclamation begins, “One, but!” Paul is saying, “All of my life boils down to one passionate, rabid, ardent, all-consuming focus.” What is it, Paul?

He switches metaphors to athletics, specifically the sprint. Paul wants you imagining the Olympian runner as he describes the “one” in his life – “Forgetting what is behind (no runner can be looking over his shoulder) and straining toward what is ahead (picture eyes set, face tense, muscles and tendons hardened, sweat pouring from every pore), I press on (there’s our word for “pursue” or “persecute” again) toward the goal (literally “goal post”) to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (13b-14). Like Justify, who won the Triple Crown of horse racing yesterday, he’s been chosen and trained for this destiny.

Like Bob, Linda, Phil and Carlie the last two weeks, Paul has other things to do. He still eats, sleeps, talks, travels, writes, reads, teaches, does all sorts of things. But they are all defined by one: one passionate pursuit, to know Christ and be like him.

Perfect (15-16)

Paul now switches from the first person singular to the plural:  “All of us who are mature should take such a view of things” (15). Remember, he’s writing to the Philippians as friends, as colleagues, as equals in this pursuit of Christ. When he speaks of those who are “mature,” ironically he uses that same word translated “perfect.” He just said he wasn’t perfect, now he’s inviting others who are perfect to join him.

John Chrysostom, a fourth century Christian teacher, explained it like this:  “It is the mark of the perfect man not to reckon himself perfect.” We use “perfect” in different ways. A child can present a free crayon drawing of your house with flowers and trees and doors and windows, and you will say, “Perfect.” It’s not perfect in the sense of an architect’s detailed rendering, but it’s perfect in the sense of that child’s pursuit of excellence and effort. Paul’s tongue is firmly planted in his cheek as he says, “If you’re ‘perfect,’ then you’re humble enough to know you have not arrived.”

Paul says to his friends, “Your perfect attitude is to admit imperfection in your knowledge of Christ and pursuit of holiness, and, if you’re having a hard time with that idea it’s not my job to do the convincing.” The text reads, “And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained” (15-16). Maybe you think you’re further along than everyone else thinks, or maybe you think you’re way behind. I’ll leave it up to the Holy Spirit to let you know where you are and what’s next. But whatever you do, don’t go backwards.

Models and mentors (17-21)

Paul is almost done with this section of his letter, which started back in 1:27. Before that, he talked about his own situation – in prison, being treated as a rival by other gospel preachers, not knowing if he would live or die, looking at every person and situation through gospel lenses. Now for two chapters he’s been instructing the Philippians about their spiritual walk and church life.

But how, Paul? This final section of today’s text gives a piece of very practical advice:  choose your models and mentors wisely. We look around and notice people who seem to get to the top with dishonesty, manipulation, pride, and selfish ambition – exactly the opposite of the virtues Paul has commended in Philippians.

Paul reminds them that he is a model they can follow, not because he’s perfect but because he’s got his eye on the goal. If he’s not there physically, they should look for others “who live as we do” (17) – literally, “according to our type,” our type of people. Some Philippians may look at Paul like some of you look at me. “Well, it’s easy for you to be gospel-focused. You get paid for being a good Christian.” Paul’s circumstances were different, of course – he was in prison, not preaching in a free country. Still, people wondered if God doesn’t have “special, full-time Christians” for whom it’s easier to focus on Christ. The rest of us have other things to do, you know.

I will say to you what Paul said to the Philippians.  Look around you, in your everyday world. There are people in business and education and politics and medicine and finance and whatever it is you do who have this same focus on “one” centralized priority in life. You will find those with your same temptations and struggles who still focus on the one. Identify mentors and models who are most like you but still look a lot like Jesus. They look through gospel lenses, they trust God in the worst of situations, they know that to live is Christ and to die is gain, they treat people with humility.

That’s not true of everyone, Paul reminds them. He’s moved to tears by those who are “enemies of the cross of Christ” (18). These may be the same as the Judaizers earlier in the chapter, or they may be non-religious Greeks and Romans in the society at large. It doesn’t matter. Paul points out four ways they are different if they’re not gospel people – their destiny, their god, their glory, and their mindset (19) are all different. He’s talking about people who live for earthly pleasures and lusts, for what they can gain and keep in this world, for the next party or drink or pleasure or power grab or profit margin. They’re the opposite of Jesus. Their destiny is destruction. Their god is pleasure. Their glory is in things that are shameful. Their mind is on earth.

“But our citizenship is in heaven,” Paul says in verse 20, circling back to 1:27. The Roman colony in Macedonia knew their Roman citizenship required a different loyalty, different behavior, different priorities. If there were ever any trouble on that foreign soil, Caesar would be their “Savior.” This is a word that Paul uses with surprising rarity in his letters, but it is so appropriate here.

Paul reminds the Philippians that their ultimate destiny and hope is the Savior who will come from heaven to restore order to this fallen world and “to transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (21). This is his word of encouragement to them when they think they can’t keep going with the bodies and situations they have. Christians stubbornly hold on to hope that this world of chaos and decay is not our destiny. Our Savior will come from heaven, and he is our hope.

And so we come to this final verse in today’s reading where Paul sums it all up:  “Therefore, my family (“brothers and sisters”), who I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!” (4:1) Such warmth and deep affection. Paul loves these people, feels a closeness to them unparalleled in his other letters, feels invested in them, is confident in their progress. But he wants them to stand firm, to hold on to their faith, to be unified. More on that next week.


That’s a lot of ground to cover, so let me suggest a few questions to take home with you.

First:  who’s your hero? After whose life do you model yours? It’s interesting that in this context – mentors and models – Paul mentions “citizenship.” In our own highly polarized political environment it’s all too easy to focus our hopes and dreams on one political party or philosophy or politician. I’ve been reading recently that evangelical Christians (and I am one) are too cozy with President Trump and not critical enough. In many cases, that’s true. I’ve always tried to stay away from public criticism of whoever held the office of President. At the same time, I need to say that there’s a very real and definite sense in which every Christian should be critical and wary of every President, even of every leader and pastor. None of us gets it right. I’d like to think I hold the values of integrity and humility and peace and personal morality no matter who I’m talking about. It’s so dangerous to idolize and defend any human being.

But you do need a hero, someone who looks at the world through gospel lenses, who keeps his or her priorities in order, whose life is somewhat parallel to your own situation, but whom you can watch up close and learn from. It might even be a dead hero – an author or towering figure from Scripture or church history. But it could be someone next door or down the pew or in the next office who models the focus on one.

Here’s another question:  Have you moved the goal post? This is a question for me and for many of you who have been living this Christian life for a long time. What grabbed me in a fresh way about Paul’s words in Philippians 3, words I’ve pondered and taught for literally decades, is that Paul is saying, “I’m not perfect, and I’m not okay with that.” It’s so different than how we hear people express it today. “So I messed up, nobody’s perfect.” It sounds like we’re okay with living like the enemies of Christ.

Are there things in your life that you would not have tolerated early in your faith experience, or that you always wanted to grow through, but you’re still stuck? Have you moved the goal post, satisfied with imperfections that Jesus is not at all satisfied with? My Sunday School class is reading a book called The Pursuit of Holiness this summer. It’s not too late to join us – or just get the book. Every chapter challenges us to never be satisfied with anything less than a full commitment to knowing Christ and being like him.

Finally:  What’s your “one”? Paul’s life is filled with many things, his past spiritual achievements, his future plans among them. He practically screams at us, “One, but!” One! His “one” is to know Christ and to be like him. Psychiatrist Curt Thompson reminded us when he was here a couple years ago that this intimacy with Christ includes being known by him. That’s my one, and sometimes I forget it in the maze of so much else in life. I have no greater desire than intimacy with Jesus.

What does it mean to know Christ and to be like him? For me, it’s always meant being a student of Scripture, but it never ceases to amaze me how God opens my eyes to what I have failed to see in the Bible. This year our Board of Elders is helping me to focus on issues of justice. That means, at least in part, being willing to listen to the cries of those in our community who are not heard and known, at least by me.

You’re going to be hearing more about opportunities to listen to the cries of those who have not had the chances in life that you and I have had. Just yesterday Linda led a dozen of our women in providing refreshments for the commencement of HCAM, a vocational school in our community with a mix of Caucasian, black, and Hispanic students. The staff and faculty were overwhelmed with appreciation for that simple, one-time gesture of loving service. But we can go deeper.

Our Elders voted last Tuesday to adopt a partnership with Patrick Beaver Learning Resources Center and Viewmont Elementary School to provide tutors and resources for tutors right across the street from our campus. I learned recently that there is a gap of 30 million words between what underprivileged children and a typical child in a middle class home hear before the age of three! We can’t fix all of that, but we can be proactive in engaging children within shouting distance of our church.

Why? Because to know and be like Christ is to give others the joy of being known, whoever they are and whatever they do and however they look. We’re being called as a church to look at racism and inequality and poverty in ways we haven’t in the past. It’s not about political ideology. It’s about a passion to know Christ as he is revealed to us in Scripture and open ourselves to his scrutiny. “Jesus, where am I not yet like you?” That’s my one. What’s yours? Amen.

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