Philippians 3: (4b-7) 8-14
The Prize for All
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God, our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, amen. Our text for this morning comes from the Epistle, which was read earlier.
Do you know what you want? I mean, do you know what you want most of all? Is there something about which you really can say, “I’d give anything…?” Until we know what we want most, we can’t really get our lives together. Until then, we are likely to go off in many directions, many of which will be pleasurable but not necessarily satisfying. Until then, we’re likely to spin our wheels quite a bit and waste a lot of energy as well as a lot of life. Detours, dead ends and despair can get to be the order of the day. We want so many things, but what should we want most? What desire is fit to measure all other desires, to draw them together and to give them their proper place?
Looking at Paul before his conversion, the best that his former state could yield was righteousness on the basis of human achievement. He had been circumcised on the eighth day just as the Old Testament law required, which many of the Judaizers and Jewish proselytes could not claim for themselves. He was of pure Jewish stock from the tribe of Benjamin. As a member of the Pharisees he had strictly and faultlessly kept the law. He had even persecuted the Christians, which every Pharisee considered to be a most God-pleasing thing. He had far outclassed even the best of the Judaizers. If salvation were by works, Paul would have been guaranteed clear entrance to heaven. And at one time Paul considered all that to his profit; they were all advantages that would have helped him gain an eternal reward.
But since that blinding experience on the road to Damascus, Paul’s eyes of faith were opened, and he now realized that all those things were to his disadvantage. They stood in the way of his having a right relationship with the Lord and kept the gates of heaven shut up tight for him. They did not gain any righteousness for him but only led him away from the true righteousness in Christ. They were now all to his “loss.” Those old ideas needed to be abandoned as totally useless and worthless. We, however, cannot always say the same about ourselves.
Wouldn’t it be nice to say with Paul, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.” Wouldn’t it be nice to say with Paul that regardless of what I have, it means nothing because I have Jesus Christ. Our culture today puts everything before church. Our jobs require more and more work out of us, often requiring us to work more and more hours. Working Sundays is not unheard of; in fact, it is probably the norm. Athletics require practice after practice, regardless of the day of the week. Tournaments are scheduled from Friday through Sunday. We put thing after thing ahead of God, just as Paul did. We take our eyes off of the prize: of Christ Jesus and His life, death, and resurrection, and put them on the things of this world. But on that Damascus Road, he saw that these were nothing but rubbish.
Everything he had formally put his confidence in—his heritage, his zealous keeping of the law, his persecution of the church—Paul now considered as nothing more than rubbish. Not only were they not for his profit, they stood to cost him everything; they were a loss. Jesus Christ and the righteousness that comes through faith in His life, His cross and His empty grave was far superior and the only thing worth keeping. That was the real profit. That was where his salvation would come from.
It is important to realize that some of the things that we often regard as a real advantage and to our “profit” can actually be to our disadvantage if we regard them as a meritorious work. Boasting over the fact that one has been baptized and confirmed, that one has received a Christian education through a Lutheran elementary or high school, taking pride in one’s church attendance and “all that I’ve done” for the church—this stands in the way of relying on Jesus Christ alone for salvation. The sad thing is: it’s very easy to do. It’s so easy, most of the time, we don’t even think about it. By our thoughtless actions like that, we distort what Christianity is. We take the focus off of what Christ did for us and put the focus on what it is that we did for ourselves. That was exactly what Paul was trying to end: “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.”
During this Lenten season, everything revolves around Christ and knowing who Christ is, according to the Scriptures. It is not about whom authors say that Christ is. It’s not about who other denominations say that Christ is. It is about who the Scriptures say that Christ is. For Paul, knowing who Christ is was more important than anything.
That should be our focus as well, especially during this penitential season. In just a matter of weeks, we will celebrate the death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. We focus not on the things of this world, the things which we have done or have not done, but instead focus on what it is that we have received: forgiveness of sins, life and salvation.
Through the persecutions that Paul had endured, Paul shared in Christ’s sufferings. Time and again Jesus’ enemies directed their hate for the Lord at Paul because he was connected with Jesus. Death was always at Paul’s side; even as he wrote these words, he was in prison and could have been condemned and executed. While all these things did not earn Paul his forgiveness and righteousness, they did show that Paul was connected with Christ and that Christ was being formed in him.
Even today, we share in Christ’s sufferings. Christians suffer and are persecuted for their beliefs. As we put up with the ridicule and persecutions the world hurls our way and as we daily put to death our sinful nature with all its desires, we share in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings and become more like Him in His death. The final goal is our own resurrection to glory.
Our death is not, nor could it be, like that of Christ. Paul means that as Christ died unto sin, having no more to do with it, so likewise is his will. He doesn’t want to be captive to his sins anymore. He realized that the only way that he could be free from his sins is because Jesus Christ died for his sins.
One might think that Paul was the outstanding, perfect, model Christian. However, he was the first to say that he was not. The Christian’s maturing and growth is never complete. It is a constant, ongoing process while we live here in this world. The Christian can never say, “I’m done; I’ve got it made.” The Christian’s life is the constant struggle of the new man against the Old Adam and its sinful desires. Everyday is a struggle, but because of Christ, we have won the battle. Everyday we, like Paul, “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
We are far from perfect, no matter how close to being perfect we say we are. But Christ took our imperfect being into His perfect being and the result was forgiveness. He has brought us into Him and we receive life everlasting. God has set before every Christian that prize of eternal life and the perfect glory of heaven, won through Christ’s perfect life of righteousness, paid for with His blood and guaranteed by His empty tomb. This is the prize which God has given to you. In Jesus’ name, amen.
Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus. Amen.
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