Two weeks ago we look at Philippians 2 in which we read the great hymn or poem of Jesus’ self-emptying:
“…though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself…”
I didn’t expand on that part of the reading very much, which is a bit of a shame, because it’s an incredibly powerful description of the journey that the gospel describes, in which Jesus descends – from equality with God, to human form, to the form of a servant, to death, even death on a cross – and then ascends, in the resurrection and ascension, but more:
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name
Last Sunday evening Stuart preached on that passage and on this one, talking about the way that Jesus’ self-emptying and then being lifted up by God is echoed in Paul’s description of his own journey – he started with many reasons to boast, as recognised in his community; but these things he set aside for a life of suffering; and as he wrote he was looking forward to being raised up.
I wanted to mention that picture because I think it really helps as we dig into this passage, especially when we read Paul writing that he wants to know Christ “and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death” – troubling words, read by themselves, but put into the context of this narrative of descent and then being raised up, they make a lot more sense: Paul has suffered, a great deal, for his commitment to the gospel, and he will, if tradition is anything like accurate, soon die for his faith. But when Paul writes that he wants to know “the sharing of Jesus’ sufferings” we aren’t seeing a desire to suffer, so much as a recognition that the suffering he does experience is simply a parallel with, a sharing in, the story of Jesus.
But I really want to focus a little more on the goal, the endpoint towards which Paul is “pressing on”. What is it that he sees at the end of his road, the parallel to Jesus’ exultation to the name above all names? And how does he expect to attain his goal?
But we start with what Paul’s goal isn’t – what he considers of so little import that he can describe it as a loss, compared to the things that really matter.
He begins, we might say in today’s sociological language, with his privilege – those markers of status that set him, in the eyes of his context, his culture, above others, even though they were simply matters of chance. He’s a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews – born a Jew, a member of the people of God from his first day – and more, circumcised on the eighth day – a note that his parents were observant of the law, but also that he possessed the privilege – even greater in that day, but still very significant today – of being male.
All that, he did nothing to earn – he was born with the proverbial silver spoon (the more so when we remember from his story in the book of Acts that he was also born a citizen of Rome). That’s not a criticism, any more than we criticize Jesus in the parallel story for being of very nature God at the start – it’s just a recognition of where he began.
And then he turns to things he might, to an extent, claim credit for: as to the law, a Pharisee, zealous in his persecution of the Church, and as to righteousness – blameless.
We maybe just need to pause a moment there – blameless under the law? That’s a strange thing for Paul, he of the “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” declaration, to say.
But I think what we’re seeing here is not a claim to perfection, but a recognition of how he was seen in the eyes of the world. Under the law, the legal system, the rules that he as a Pharisee had been so insistent on knowing and keeping, he was without blame. No charge could be laid against him.
He had all this, part by chance, part by choice, part by effort. And that set him up for what he goes on to call “a righteousness of my own that comes by the law”. There were no limits to where he could go, what he could become within his society – the ancient world was his oyster. He could aim for, and reasonably expect to get, anything he wanted. And clearly there was some goal of righteous service to God in his mind, in his zeal persecuting those, as he saw it, blasphemers who followed Jesus.
But now something has changed. And he might say, as Idina Menzel sings in Wicked, “I don’t want it, no, I can’t want it anymore”.
What he wants is no long a righteousness by the law, success by the standards of his people; now what he wants is a different righteousness – the righteousness from God based on faith.
His goal is no longer something that he can achieve – by his fortune of birth, or by working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter, by being a self-starter (since I’m on a roll quoting from musicals today).
The goal he’s pressing on to now is a gift.
So how does that make any sense at all?
How do you work towards a gift?
How do you press on towards something that comes to you entirely by the free grace of God?
That’s a tension, a mystery, perhaps, that Paul actually mentioned in passing back in chapter 2, when he wrote “work out your own salvation … for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work”
Press on to take what has been given.
Work your salvation because it is God who is working.
Which is it? A gift of grace, or something to work towards? Us who work, or God working in us.
Or – moving from musicals to memes – why not both?
Because I think Paul gives us a piece of the answer here, when he names, at last, the prize that he is pressing towards.
And it isn’t salvation; though surely that is part of the gift; and his goal isn’t righteousness, either of his own works or by faith in Jesus.
So what is the goal he presses on towards, the prize he is pressing towards? He tells us: “the call of God in Christ Jesus”.
The prize he is pressing towards is God’s call.
He’s not working to be saved, to get into heaven, to be forgiven – that’s all a given, a gift of grace.
He’s not working to be righteous, in the eyes of the world or even in the eyes of God. His righteousness is by faith; he is right with God because he trusts in Jesus, and no-one else’s opinion matters.
He’s working towards, pressing towards, the heavenly call of God.
And I love the ambiguity in that.
Is he pressing on to do the thing that he knows he has been called to?
Or is he pressing towards being called – like Peter in the boat, asking to be called?
Is he pressing ahead with what he already knows, or pressing to know more of what God is calling him into?
Or why not both.
But what’s clear – and the challenge and the invitation in these words – is this.
He is no longer concerned about doing the things that will bring him advancement and status and glory in the eyes of the world. None of that matters.
And he isn’t concerned about doing things to make himself acceptable in the eyes of God, either – that matters, but it’s a gift, it’s grace, it’s a given
What he’s concerned about – consumed by – is doing that which God has called him to do, and learning that which God will call him to next.
That’s the work. And doing it – doing what he was created to do – that’s the prize.