“I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord”: Philippians 3, 8a
Paul was acutely aware that he carried a lot of old baggage around with him – memories of high spots on his spiritual journey. He called it his “old Adam”. He had been a strict Jew, none stricter. His head was full of Psalms they sung every Sabbath in synagogue. Think of the one we have just read: Psalm 19:
7-9: “The law of the Lord is perfect. The decrees of the Lord are sure. The precepts of the Lord are right. The commandment of the Lord is clear. The ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether”.
Keeping the Law to the letter as a Pharisee had brought a warm glow, a thrilling sense of being pure and blameless. He had strictly followed God’s instructions in, for instance, Deuteronomy and observed all the little laws that had been added on the back of them down the years. They required him to exterminate the followers of “The Way” that Jesus of Nazareth had started, playing fast and loose with the Law and thinking they knew better – a highly dangerous movement influencing the masses. He was doing God’s Will!
Then, as he says, “Jesus took hold of me”; He confronted him in person on the Damascus road – undoubtably alive the other side of death. The vision blinded him. He was in shock until a disciple called Ananaias had the courage to lay hands of love – and forgiveness – on him, and the scales fell from his eyes. He tells us he then went away for three years into Arabia to pray, until he experienced another high spot, when he was filled with spiritual rapture, and taken up into the seventh heaven where he saw things that no one could describe. But all this he had to put behind him when he set out to face the sufferings that went with being a missionary. Amid all the beatings and stonings, hunger and cold of life on the road, all those spiritual high spots seemed irretrievable now, and to have happened to somebody else. The early Christians were not rich or powerful. They were the poor and humble of society. They could not pay Paul or offer him a comfortable living. It was the loss of the good things of life, as well as all his achievements and high spots, that he counted as “loss” for the sake of knowing and gaining Christ. The word Paul uses is savage; it actually means “crap”! Following Jesus brought Paul in contact with suffering and finally death.
So, he says to the faithful in Philippi, “Don’t get hung up on the past. Being a follower of Jesus Christ means sharing in his suffering and death. It’s part of what is needed in order to know Christ and his Resurrection”. So, is that true for us too, if we are called to share in the life and ministry of Christ? Should we stop using the past as our reference point? If it is true, what does it mean for us, to each of us personally and to us all as his body, the Church, here?
One of my boyhood heroes was Albert Schweitzer. A brilliant scholar, he had a glittering career, achieving three doctorates before he was 30 – in philosophy, theology and music. He reshaped New Testament thought about Jesus’ actual message, and produced brilliant insight into J.S. Bach. A fine organist, he also became principal of a theological college. Then he gave it all up to train as a medical doctor, and went to Africa to run a hospital and pay back something of the debt Western colonial powers had stolen from the African people. He counted his previous achievements as loss, to devote the rest of his life caring for people in desperate need, and showing God’s love in action.
Think of all you have achieved and are proud of, in school or career or raising your family, or sport. Those memories now seem rooted in a previous life. They are “refuse” from the past. At best you can stand on their shoulder to look forward to new revelation of Christ with you, and then to leave them behind. In his light identify what is positive now, what is a challenge, an opportunity however small. Seek a present experience where Christ reigns, is over all, in your heart and mind.
Of course this God of ours sometimes calls us to “go through deep waters”, as the hymn puts it. Maybe at the moment we feel we are being cut off from God, as well as others in this time of restriction, it is not “normality”. It is a break from the past with all its highlights. But it is more. It is the signal that something new is about to happen.
In the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Stop dwelling on past events and brooding on days gone by. I am about to do something new”. Forgetting what lies behind, we press forward in expectation. Jesus is still with us, and through it all his Spirit will give us the resources to continue loving as God loves us, and finding fresh ways to build and maintain relationships, holding everyone and everything sacred.
Paul wrote these words under house arrest in Rome, in lockdown and cut off from his life’s work, he knew he was facing testing times. He did not know how it would end or what the future would hold for him, but he did know that, whatever was to happen, he could face it and overcome it as long as he “knew “Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings” (v.10). He would not cling to the past, however tempted, but simply let the living Christ hold him and uphold him.
And that’s our Reality now as well. If we let ourselves be held safe in our Saviour’s personal presence, we can face any suffering, even death. Sharing in “the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings”, in Paul’s words, is the only real path – the only gateway to sharing in Resurrection Life. “Not that I … have already been made perfect,” said Paul, “but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (v. 12)
So, I believe this present crisis is an opportunity to give up our baggage of the past, throw it away to make room for the greatest prize. We have to accept what we are now enduring, believing it can be used by God to bring in his eternal Kingdom, and that Jesus will always hold us in the darkness. We have to travel on in hope, though not be sight, and expect a new future. Christ has promised that where he is, we shall be also. “I have come that you may have life abundant”. He has endured isolation and desolation before us. Take him at his word: let go and let God. He will surely carry us through to eternal life in all its fulness.