Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard
Philippians 3:14 – 4:1
“Stand Firm– In the Journey”
A major storm has arrived. The wind is blowing really hard! You are having trouble breathing. Your blood pressure is rising and you can feel your heart beating in your chest. But you just know you must hang on because this storm is going to come to an end – soon you pray. Some days that is just how it feels! The responsibilities that come with adulthood mount up! The pressures of your critics to do it better and the self-loathing start to override your confidence and stamina. The firmness of your stance begins to weaken. Your resolve to continue on, to press on begins to lose its grasp. Yet, the storm winds continue to blow. The rain stings on your cheeks and the wind howls.
The storm for the Apostle Paul started a long time ago. Back when he was called Saul and was a young Pharisee. He is first introduced to us as they were stoning Steven. “But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.” You will find this quote in the New Testament, the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 7, verses 57 and 58.
That’s right, our hero, the man, the primary evangelist and Apostle that moved the Christian movement forward and outside of Jerusalem and Palestine, after Jesus was executed, was first and foremost a Pharisee and feared by most Christians. Yes, indeed, the man Saul, a trained Pharisee, was educated and given power and responsibility as he was due – based on his experience and position within the church.
It is important for us to take note here and fully understand that the Pharisees and the Sadducees were part of the Priesthood of the Hierarchy of religious leaders just below the Jewish High Priests. Within this grouping of religious leaders, the Pharisees, were respected by the common people. This was mainly because they represented the oral tradition of the Tora, what we know as the Old Testament. They, therefore, were able to take the old teachings out to the people, beyond the walls of the Temple and the synagogues. Thus they had real influence in the community and consequently their views and opinions were significant in the hierarchy of the religious order.
In his ambition, as a Pharisee, Saul asked to be sent to Damascus, to help round up Christians to be punished and executed. “Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” /Acts 9:1-5/ This accounting goes on to tell us of Saul’s conversion to Christianity and how: at his baptism, he was renamed Paul. William Loader, of Murdoch University, the Uniting Church in Australia, expresses the belief that: “Without throwing away his own religion Paul, nevertheless, throws away a theology which had made him important and given him great status. In its place he embraces Christ and Christ’s way.”
When you step back for a moment and look at this point in history, it is hard not to begin to grasp the enormity of this Pharisee being converted to Christianity. Especially, after the High Priests had gone to such lengths to have the movement toward Jesus stopped. In their efforts they arrested and tried Jesus, in the middle of the night, having him brutally flogged and crucified! The point here, the real overall significance of a Pharisee, such as Saul, being publicly converted and becoming a Baptized Christian, the point here is Saul’s baptism was a great embarrassment and threat to those whom had Jesus wrongly executed! All this surely made Paul a target for persecution as well!
Yes! The storm was ragging all around. The sounds of injustice and persecution could be heard on the streets and echoed throughout the community! Will the sounds of the hungry and the marginalized never cease?! Even now you can still hear the scorn and laughter; you can hear the steel bars on Paul’s jail door slam shut!
Moving on to today’s scripture lesson, we hear the Baptized and renamed, ‘The Apostle Paul’ writing a letter to the Philippians, in Philippi; which was one of the first churches he established on European soil. As we now try to grasp the depth and breadth of the struggle that Paul was facing, as he wrote to this struggling community in Philippi, we must bear in mind that Paul, like the other Apostles, was forced to deal with the fact that the early allusions and quotations pertaining to: what the Messiah would bring, had been shattered! The Old Testament Prophets spoke of a messiah that would free the people, leading them in conquest over their oppressors. But, we now know, that Jesus, the Son of God, proclaimed that he would not use the old methods of the sword and shield to free the people. He spoke of a ‘new covenant’ and died on a cruel cross for the sins of humankind, leaving behind his miracles and his teachings. Along with inspiration and strength from his Spirit, what we now call the ‘Holy Spirit’ to press the Apostles and their disciples onward.
And Preachers and Evangelist think they have challenges in the Twenty-First Century! Bringing people into the Christian church has never been easy! But yet, we are still charged to do exactly that! Easy or hard – our task is to bring the ‘good news’ to ALL the children of God!
“There was clearly a lot of opposition to the church at the time of Paul’s letter. A terrible storm was a brewing for sure! Christian lives were hanging in the balance. Clearly, Paul was offering himself as a power of example representing ‘standing firm’, with ‘courage’ and ‘joy’, in the midst the perils that loomed over this struggling church. He was striving to turn their attention away from their harsh circumstances and help them to focus on the proclamation of the gospel.” /paraphrased from page 279, NT, Oxford Annotated, NRSV Bible/ Have you ever had someone try to talk you through a bad situation? Paul was trying to influence a community with just his letters! Difficult enough to do in person, but these indirect methods are only doubly difficult! With this in mind let’s go back a bit and hear a few more sentences from Paul’s writings to this church.
One of the verses more often quoted are Paul’s encouraging words found in Philippians chapter 2, verses 4-13. This is the chapter before the words we are trying to grasp today, but also words and thoughts the ‘listener’ would have been offered before today’s lesson. “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
In today’s lesson, Paul is telling the people, the church and the faith community, he is trying to reach and speak to the struggling followers of the teachings of Jesus, the Christ: Paul is saying: ‘Press On’, ‘Stand Firm!’ “I press on (proclaims the Apostle Paul) toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” /Philippians 3:14/ As his appeal and advice in this lesson comes to conclusion he declares: “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.” /Philippians 4:1/ No matter what the storm, no matter what the crises Paul urges us to stay focused on the goal. Stay focused on “the prize of the heavenly ‘call’ of God.” /Philippians 3:14/ One theologian sums it up in these words: “For Paul, perseverance is a way to get closer to Christ. It means not looking back, but looking ahead toward Christ with single-minded purpose.” /Alyce McKenzie/
It was a difficult time for struggling churches back in the First century. No question about that. This church has seen its struggles as well, we all know that. Despite the ‘turn around’ of this community in these past couple years, the journey forward has not gotten any easier. The obstacles ahead still loom and materialize virtually every day. In every sense of the word: the storm still rages on, all around us. Our challenge, our task, is to mind the advice and recommendations of the Apostle Paul, for surely his words still echo off the walls of this sanctuary. Perhaps these walls are only about thirteen years old, yet they still bear the souls, the spirits, and the witnesses of a hundred and twenty five years of ministry in this greater community! The membership numbers have fluctuated greatly yet have been virtually stable for two years. The finances have been up and down but stable for two years now.
The task is to “stand Firm’ and ‘press on’ to the goal!
The problem with storms and chaos is they wash away what has been know and replace it with the sounds of fear, anxiety and doubt. The ‘clap’ of thunder blocks out the harmony of worshipful music and song – that caresses the worn and tired soul. Hold fast, stand firm, the storm shall pass and the sun shall shine again.
It is believed that our needs will be met when we grow the numerical attendance at our times of worship. True, it will be a day of rejoicing. But that day will never come unless we keep moving forward as we have been doing. The storms, they shall run their course and then we shall stand in the sun light and bask in the affirmation that we have continued to do the will of God, despite the impossible odds. You and I we shall only experience this if we ‘Stand Firm” and ‘Press On’, just as the Baptized and converted Pharisee, renamed Paul, the Apostle Paul, recommends.
All Praise be to God. Amen.
Let us now open ourselves to receiving the words of ancient scriptures, into our hearts and minds, in hopes of hearing the leading of the Spirit of God in our lives today. Hear now the words of the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Philippians: chapter 3, verses 14 thru verses 21, and chapter 4, verse one.
I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.
Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.
Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.
May God bless us, one and all, as we now ponder the message this reading contains for us today.