Summary: Forsaking all past achievements and human advantages, St. Paul strains ahead to be found in Christ; this striving is by faith, and results in an imputed righteousness from God, a sharing in the sufferings of Christ, Christlikeness and participation in the resurrection of the dead.
“Forgetting what’s behind. Straining for what’s ahead.”
April 1, 2001
The Rev’d Quintin Marrow
St. Anne’s Episcopal Church
The Text: Phil. 3:8-14
In sixteenth-century France, the start of the new year was observed on April first. It was celebrated in much the same way as it is today, with parties, music and dancing into the wee hours of the morning. Then 1562, Pope Gregory introduced a calendar for the Christian world—the Gregorian calendar—in which the new year fell on January first. There were some people, however, who hadn’t heard or didn’t believe that the date for new years had been changed, so they continued to celebrate the beginning of the year on April first. Others played tricks on them and called them “April fools.” They sent them on a bogus mission, or “fool’s errand,” or tried to persuade them that something false was true, and something true was false. Thus the origins of April Fool’s Day.
April first—the date today—used to be about new beginnings. And new beginnings are certainly what St. Paul is concerned about in our epistle lesson for today from Philippians chapter 3. Writing in verses 13 and 14 of chapter 3 he says: “But one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Forgetting the past—with all of its failures or achievements—and focusing on one grand passion, being found faithful in Jesus Christ; that’s what the Apostle is describing. And that is the kind of living we are called to: forward looking living. Forgetting the past. Laying aside its failures and accomplishments and making knowing Christ and making Him known the central focus of our lives. That is victorious Christian living. That is genuine discipleship.
Living like this, of course, involves a decision; it’s a life choice involving the sacrifice of some things. But God never asks us to sacrifice a thing that He doesn’t replace with something far better. When we exchange something of ours—something of the flesh—for something of God’s—something of the Spirit—it is always a trade up. In Mark 10:28 Peter says to the Lord, “See, we have left all and followed you.” So Jesus answered, verses 29 & 30, and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for my sake and the Gospel’s, who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time…and in the age to come, eternal life.”
As we shall observe in Phil. 3, Paul describes the sacrificial laying aside of all his advantages, achievements and accomplishments—both worldly and religious—so that he would gain Christ. Moreover, he reveals what Christ gave him in replacement in his life for what he sacrificed; namely, a new standing with God, a new hope and a new purpose for living.
But first some background. Paul’s letter to the Philippians is unlike most of his others in the New Testament. A majority of his other epistles are polemical; that is, they were written to correct a problem, give information or instruction, or pass along some doctrinal imperatives to a divided congregation. Not Philippians. Philippians is a love letter from a friend to his friends. Paul writes it to thank the Philippians for their generosity in sending a much-needed monetary gift, to commend one faithful friend, Epaphro-ditus, to them, and to relay news of his imprisonment in Rome. The predominant theme of the letter is joy. That word and its derivatives are used 16 times in just 4 chapters.
Nevertheless, even amidst this encouraging letter, Paul warns the Philippian believers to beware of false teachers creeping into their church unawares. Specifically, he warns them to beware of the Judaizers, a group of Christianized Jews infiltrating new Gentile congregations and teaching that faith in Christ plus circumcision and obedience to the Mosaic Law were necessary for salvation. Paul recognized this for what it was: an assault on and finally an abnegation of the Gospel of free grace. If anything is added to the gospel of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ’s cross alone, the gospel disappears. And what replaces it is always, always, always a salvation that depends on human effort, human good works, human merit, or human accomplishment. And that good news, as Paul stingingly points out to the Galatians in his letter to them, is no good news at all.
Notice verses 2 & 3: “Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the mutilation! For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Jesus Christ, and have no confidence in the flesh.” The dogs Paul speaks of are not cute little Toto from the Wizard of Oz, but wild dogs ravishing God’s flock with false teaching.