(Philippians 3: 4b-14; John 12: 1-8)
What does it mean to call yourself a Christian? One of the biggest challenges facing the Church today is confusion as to precisely that. It was the first question I used to ask my students when they began the study of Christianity: What makes somebody a Christian? Is it enough to be born in a Christian country? Does being christened as a baby make you a Christian? Growing up in a Christian family? Going to church on Sundays? Trying to be a good person? Or is it a matter of what you believe?
There was little agreement among my students, and there’s little more among adults – not just outside the Church but within its ranks as well. And I must be sensitive in what I say, because people can get quite defensive if their views on a question like this are challenged. But when St. Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus, he was quite specific as to what it meant to him to be a Christian.
By way of background, Paul was writing to a young church whose confidence in their status as authentic Christians had been badly shaken. They’d come under fire from a group of aggressive “Judaizers”: campaigners who were trying to draw them back into the caste divisions and the legal and ritual observances of traditional Judaism. Paul’s method of defence is (predictably enough) to go on the offensive. He systematically dismisses the grounds on which these people claim to be holy. And he does so by pulling to pieces his own past life as a fine upstanding member of the religious establishment.
Let me summarise his words, and then we can look briefly at each phrase in turn: I was circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews. In regard to the law, a Pharisee. As for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.
Let’s look at each of these claims:
· He was circumcised as an infant
(he had undergone the Jewish equivalent of baptism).
· He was of the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin
(he was born into both a holy nation and an important religious clan).
(he was born into both a holy nation and an important religious clan).
· He was a Pharisee
(Pharisees had advanced theological training and an intensely pious lifestyle).
· As for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless
(speaks for itself).
In short, Paul pigeon-holes his younger self as one of the ultimate religious elite. If anyone could ever be a holy and righteous member of God’s people based on race, nationality, family ties or religious zeal, then he was that man. But he goes on to say to savage all these claims (I am abbreviating his words here): I consider all these things…a loss compared with the supreme worth of knowing Jesus as my Lord. In fact, I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ…not through any righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but through faith in Christ. And he goes on to describe exactly what that faith in Christ will involve: he wants not just to live like Jesus, but to experience the same kind of sufferings as Jesus, to undergo the same kind of martyr’s death as Jesus, and ultimately to experience the same resurrection from death.
This is challenging, isn’t it? Paul is using deep theological language that may be unsettling to some people. I’m not going to ask for a show of hands, but if I were to ask how many people here would be happy with a martyr’s death, I wouldn’t expect to be trampled in the rush. So let’s get one thing straight before we go any further: only a tiny minority of Christians are ever called to be actual martyrs. And the real essence of what Paul is calling for, can be summed up in one word: identification. For Paul, only one thing ultimately qualifies somebody to be called a Christian: a whole-hearted identification with Jesus – not just believing things about him, not just doing the kind of things he did, but living his life and letting him live through us, regardless of the cost.
I’m not at that point - not by a million miles. Even Paul himself found it an impossibly tall order. “Not that I’ve already obtained all this,” he admits. “I haven’t yet arrived at my goal.” But he points to what he can do and what we can all do: “One thing I do,” he says. “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
So what does this mean for us? What makes us Christian? Do we need to reject our country’s Christian heritage, our parenting, our religious life, as Paul seems to do in this passage? Certainly not. We’re not engaged, like Paul was, in bitter controversy for the soul of the infant church. We can be humbly thankful for the Christian values enshrined in our national and family history and in our churchmanship. But we don’t have to depend on those things for our sense of Christian identity. For that, Paul’s words give us a vital road map: Identifying with Jesus. Forgetting what’s behind. And pressing on towards the goal – the goal of union with Christ. That is Paul’s roadmap for living as a Christian, for calling ourselves Christian.
Part of a teacher’s job is coaching students whose motivation is flagging. And the most important coaching question is this: Where do you want to be, what do you want to be doing, in 5 years’ time? And the follow-up questions, once they’d articulated their hopes for the future: What would you need to do to get there? What weaknesses do you need to address? What obstacles do you need to overcome now, to get to where you want to be in the future?
I wonder how St. Paul would have answered those questions. What goals do you think he would have set for himself 6 months or a year or five years ahead? What would he have seen as the steps he had to take, the obstacles he’d have to overcome? [...]
And what about you and me? That’s a more sensitive question. But could I ask you to think for a moment? (nobody’s going to ask you to share your thoughts). What would you wish for yourself a few months or years from now, particularly in relation to your spiritual life? Perhaps you’re happy with things the way they are. But I wonder if anyone here senses a hunger or thirst for something more: for a closer walk with Jesus, a deeper understanding of God’s purposes, a more prayerful or disciplined life […]
And then there are the follow-up questions: How might you get there? What might you need to do? What obstacles might you need to overcome – things or attitudes that get between you and Jesus? [...]
I’m going to leave you with those questions. But a word of reassurance before I finish: There are no right or wrong answers. Thinking back to our reading from John's Gospel, perhaps (whether male or female) you’re like Mary: someone who loves nothing better than to rest in Jesus’ presence and express their love for him. Or perhaps you’re more of a Martha, always busy, always making yourself useful in practical ways. Either way, you are who you are and who God made you to be.
But sometimes God sets us to questioning what we do, as a way of calling us on to new things. And if questions like these intrigue you, then don’t grapple with them alone. [Our pastoral team] love to have conversations about things like this, and they can help in all sorts of ways as you plan your spiritual journey in the months ahead.
Let’s bow our heads in prayer…