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Philippians Part 9: Our Heavenly Citizenship

September 6, 2020 Series: Philippians

Passage: Philippians 3:12–3:21

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Philippians 3:12–21

 

Straining Toward the Goal

 

[12] Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. [13] Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, [14] I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. [15] Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. [16] Only let us hold true to what we have attained.

 

[17] Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. [18] For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. [19] Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. [20] But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, [21] who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (ESV)

 

All of life is indeed a race. Time never slows down, and our steps are continually moving forward in progression. Only in science fiction can we stop a race or go back in time, or lunge forward to the end. Here, we are always on the forward progression in this race of life.

America has its own race it is dealing with, and if you are an American citizen right now, our media and news feeds and everything is obsessed with the story. On every major news paper or media outlet, there are three topics that overtake around 75% of all news stories, and they all intertwine in some manner: Covid-19, presidential election and matters of race and racial injustice against black Americans. The psyche of America is consumed, and in our age of YouTube and smart phones, the images of it all is always scrolling in front of our face as if it is the minute by minute reality for all of us.

As we all progress in this race of life, there is a question that I do believe we must ask: what is the end point? What is the end goal? What are we trying to achieve? If you are nearing the end of your years, or you are young with the decades ahead of you, the question remains the same: what is that final prize being sought? When your feet finally slow down and you are rounding out your path, what awaits you at the finish line?

Every metaphor breaks down, so I cannot use it completely. But the prize of these races appears for Paul to be his final hope, its the very thing that guided each swift movement of his feet. And if we once again try to put on our first century Roman hats for a moment, this church Paul is addressing was a Roman colony, wrapped up in the Roman story, it’s honored role as a Roman city with Roman benefits that not every city had. A decent amount of people in the Church were more than likely Roman citizens, and Rome had combined politics with religion with vocation, creating an all consuming identity that made everything you did and everything you do as somehow crossing back and forth into your Roman citizenship – and even your individual value as a human being. The hope became a well honored life, where upon death at least you may be remembered after on this earth for your high honors, for then as a Roman that is the only thing that mattered. It was a hope completely unattainable by most, as the majority of the Empire were poor or slaves, unable to gain honors, unable to build statues with their name on it, have the flamboyant dress or garments that showed everyone that they had a high status. Most everyone lived and died in anonymity, with only the few achieving the prize of honor and status that the Romans hung as their prize at the end of their race.

When Jesus came onto the scene, he laid down his own paths, and laid down his own prize. When he began calling people to join his new Kingdom, the race changed and the end goal also changed, or rather was restored. Roman citizens began clinging to another citizenship as primary, and before the world could realize what was happening, millions of Romans from the upper ranks of society to its lowest were joined together in a family, all walking together, living in homelands and foreign lands, but however, living as if they had none on this earth. The goals of living radically had changed, and the world was confused and surprised by the spread of this sect of “Galileans” or “Nazarenes” or people who followed “The Way” or as eventually they became known by – Christians, or little Christs.

This is why Christianity should always be strange in our world. Our race is different than the worlds. Our primary citizenship is not of this world. Our prize is different, and our feet now tread paths that may have little to no value in our world. What I want to do this morning is to try and get into your head and into your imagination this Jesus-race that is called the Christian life, and cast a vision for all of us that can, I pray, ease your anxiety. Cast you away from fear. A race that can provide purpose and meaning, even in the midst of crisis, of challenging decisions and difficulties that you may be surrounded with. Jesus does provide a path that transcends culture, time and place. It’s appearance may change throughout the centuries, its practices may be adopted into unique cultural settings, but its primary practices and end goals have not.

The city of Portland, Oregon has as its phrase, “Keep Portland Weird.” I think the Church should adopt this, and I think you’ll see why this would make sense at the end of our time together. Let’s begin:

 

[12] Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. [13] Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, [14] I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. [15] Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. [16] Only let us hold true to what we have attained.

 

What is Paul talking about? What is the “this” that he has not already obtained? If you were with us last week, you know he is referring to his being found in Jesus, not having his own righteousness but rather sharing in the righteousness of Christ through faith and allegiance – that Paul may know the power of his resurrection, share in Jesus’ sufferings, becoming like him in his death that he may by any means possible attain the resurrection from the dead.

Paul is quick to slow down and say, well, let me make it clear: I haven’t actually obtained any of this perfectly. I haven’t arrived. I’m not complete, whole, or perfect yet. I have a ways to go. It’s not mine yet. The end goal of the Christian life is not yet in my grasp. However, I press on to make these things my own. Why do I press on so diligently to make these things my own? Because Jesus Christ pressed on do diligently to make me his own.

He now falls into this race-metaphor. Having athletics in mind, Paul says clearly that in his Christian life, he wants to forget what lies behind as he strains forward to what is ahead. The language used here is one of racing by not looking at your surroundings. A runner that is not concerned with what he just passed by, or what turn he just made, or what missteps or trips he or she may have had early on in the race.

I can’t identify with a race, though. I tried the whole athletics thing, and it was an awful experience. No matter how hard I tried, there was nothing in me that actually enjoyed it, or was even good at it. It just wasn’t there.

The only way I can relate to this is through books. No one known quite who did it, but between around 1550 and 1770, the highest quality books that were hot off the press, literally, had what was called the “Golden Ratio” for page margins. Some call it the “perfect page.” There is lots of mathematics involved and geometry, another area of utter failure in my life. But the idea is that the margins above and beside the words are bright and glowing and wide enough so that when your eyes are fixated on the page, most of your periphery vision lies in the margins. It is intended for maximum focus, so you will not be distracted by this or that around you. Rather, in your time of reading you are all in on the book, forgetting and not seeing what lies around you, but straining page by page to move forward. If you’ve seen one of these old books it is a think of beauty.

This is what Paul is getting at. What are the things that try to distract you in this race called life? What are things you need to forget about, right now? Things in the past that you did, or things that were done to you? Mistakes you made for failures you have, things you wish you could forget, things you wish were not a part of your story?

Paul seems to be doing a little preaching to himself. There was a time when a young man stood outside of a crowd of people as the stoned a man named Stephen – one of the first deacons in the early church at Jerusalem. This Stephen, the man who is responsible for the longest sermon in our Bibles, preached the truth of the hard hard heartedness of Judea before the council of Pharisees and Sadducees who had rejected their Messiah. As he told them the truth and as he did not hold back, he literally receives a vision of Jesus standing at the right hand of God, which in utter joy he says aloud. The crowd plugs their ears, stomps their feet in cries of blasphemy, and with a mob mentality grabs Stephen and pushes him outside to stone him for his blasphemy of declaring Jesus to be at the right hand of the Father. One of the normal practices of the day would have been to wrap Stephen in a cloth, bury him waste down, create a circle around him, and start hurling large stones at him as hard and as fast as they could, crushing his body until he would breathe his last breathe. Like Jesus, Stephen cries to Jesus that he may extend forgiveness against them for their ignorance, and his mighty man of God, whose face was shining as the face of an Angel for his special filling of the Holy Spirit, perished in a most brutal manner.

As the crowd gathered stones to throw, in preparation they took off their outer garment that could have restricted their movement during the stone throwing. They wanted their garments, which were expensive, to be in safe keeping. And there was one young man who everyone knew would watch after their garments, a young man who was quickly becoming famous for his own zeal for Judaism and his own radical Phineas-like responses to this strange new Jewish sect who worships this man from Nazareth – a young man who stood nodding in approval at Stephen’s brutal death as he egged them on in their stone throwing, who I’m sure grinned and laughed at the spectacle – Saul, later known as Paul, the very writer of this letter.

Do you think Paul wanted to forget that part of his earlier race? Do you think there wasn’t a day that went by that he remembered what he did that day? He himself, as much as anyone else there, was responsible for Stephen’s death. As Paul wrote these words, “forgetting what lies behind and straining towards for what lies ahead” – I’m sure that image of the bloodied and disfigured cloth enveloped around the half buried Stephen once again flashed in his mind among the other painful reminders of his former life before Christ.

Do you have memories that make you wince? I have plenty, and I’m sure you do to. If you are in Christ, do you still cast your eyes backward, looking at those failures all over once again, thinking about them and allowing that guilt to rush back over you? Have you truly let the Cross blot that out of your story? Because it has been. If you are in Christ this morning, you have a God who loves you, who has cast away your sins as far as he east is from the west. You have a God who has delivered you from your past, and has brought you through the Red Sea of baptism into the new life of the promised land. Whoever committed that or did that is gone, he’s as dead as our Christ was on that cross. And you are as alive as a new creation as much as Christ is now through his resurrection.

And there is where our only hope lies. Look at Paul’s next words:

 

[14] I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. [15] Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. [16] Only let us hold true to what we have attained.

 

The upward call of God in Christ Jesus. What is this prize he speaks of? The way Paul constructed the sense is a bit strange and there are various opinions. However, generally speaking, he is pointing towards that future resurrection when Jesus returns to make all things new. The end of the race for us. Yes, heaven is temporary but Christianity unashamedly believes in a very strange doctrine that doesn’t make any sense with our scientific understanding of the world. It’s a doctrine that we’ve been waiting for, that Christians at every passing of a loved one mourns for and looks towards: when Jesus returns to literally raise our physical bodies up from the ground to take on immortality within a new heavens and a new earth. That is what we press on towards. That is our only hope in life and death. A body that doesn’t age, and no more distance between us and our God. No more brokenness between human beings, no more racial injustice, no more separation of families, no more murder or pain or suffering. But only beauty, joy, wonder and pleasures forevermore at the right hand of God. A new world. A new reality.

This is the goal. This is the prize. And as you grow in your faith in Jesus, think about your life in this manner. Apparently Paul knows that maybe some people might disagree with him in the church. “Maybe some of you will think otherwise,” says Paul. “That’s fine, in due time if I’m right God will reveal that to you as well.”

Then we have our final portion of Scripture this morning:

 

[17] Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. [18] For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. [19] Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.

 

Paul goes on another swift attack on people who walk as enemies of Christ. No one knows who exactly Paul is talking about, but with tearful eyes, and perhaps yet another reminder of his own past, he reminds them of the ways of those whose minds are set on earthly things.

Destruction, and not resurrection, is their end. Their god is their appetites, and the things that they glory in should actually shame them. Jeremiah spoke similarly of Israel of old, saying:

 

Jeremiah 6:15, [15] Were they ashamed when they committed abomination? No, they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush. Therefore they shall fall among those who fall; at the time that I punish them, they shall be overthrown,” says the LORD. (ESV)

 

The summary statement says, “minds set on earthly things.” Not on heavenly things, not on things to do with the new work that God is doing on this world, and will do upon his return. Rather, on temporary pleasures, things that have only to do with your life now, actions that would make sense if there was no deeper meaning or layered eternal existence of human beings.

If humans simply died and vanished into nothingness and our consciousness ended with nothing after, then go. Eat, drink, be merry. Whatever you may judge to be worthy of your time, go for it. If the race of life simply ends when your eyes close in death, then become the judge of what you should do, for only you would know best. And you have one life to live. So would you not rather enjoy it?

That is a life set on earthly things. Paul gives us the warning that we all, deep down, know, and thanks to Christianity, what even much of the world outside of Christianity knows to be true as well. Yes, an over indulgent lifestyle can and will eventually destroy. Yes, a self-centered life only brings about division and bitterness. A life led by the appetites destroys families, destroys vocations, destroys lives. The Bible is not the only thing that preaches such a message. Paul’s words are a little unclear here, as the identity of these “enemies” is unknown, as the strength of language seems to be particular, and its difficult to know exactly what or who he is referring to. However, the main idea is this: this isn’t just some moral race that if you didn’t live with your belly as your lord, then you will avoid destruction and be OK. If we return to the race metaphor, our life is that that is informed by the Cross of Christ, by the Good News of his life, death and resurrection. The Cross has begin the origin of our race, and anything that attempts to define life by another starting point will eventually lead to hopelessness and destruction. There is indeed a larger eternal reality that defines ours today.

Look, I’m arguing for the age-old argument here that our life in flesh and bones is not it. That yes, there is an existence of us after death. I want to read you a quote from Walter Isaacson’s wonderful biography on Steven Jobs. As Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, was dying of cancer, Isaacson caught him in a rare moment to discuss life after death and God. This is what he had to say:

 

I remember sitting in his backyard in his garden, one day, and he started talking about God. He [Jobs] said, “ Sometimes I believe in God, sometimes I don’t. I think it’s 50/50, maybe. But ever since I’ve had cancer, I’ve been thinking about it more, and I find myself believing a bit more, maybe it’s because I want to believe in an afterlife, that when you die, it doesn’t just all disappear. The wisdom you’ve accumulated, somehow it lives on.”

Then he paused for a second and said, “Yea, but sometimes, I think it’s just like an On-Off switch. Click. And you’re gone.” And then he paused again and said, “ And that’s why I don’t like putting On-Off switches on Apple devices.”

This is the conversation that haunts every human being, if they are honest. Yes, there are moral implications on how we live, but even moreso there are huge questions of meaning and purpose that lie even deeper. Are you here this morning, wondering about life after death? Is there really some larger meaning to your existence? Is there really another reality out there?

Jesus indeed came, saying that this is true, and that this is real. That yes, there is another heavenly reality present. And here is our closing verses: Paul jumps to another metaphor that would have been something very bold for him to say. Something that would have shocked Roman ears. A statement that, even ever sense, has reverberated throughout all those who identify with Christ as still even a shock for us today.

 

[20] But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, [21] who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (ESV)

 

Here is the core of our passage. Perhaps this was in Paul’s mind all along through his athletic imagery. Our citizenship is in heaven. This is the reality behind it all that defines who we are and how we live today.

If this is true – if Jesus is real and the claims of his Kingship is real, if Christians really are citizens of another nation, then everything changes. Everything. Nothing is the same. We become a people that, upon looking behind us, only see the Cross, and not our failures. We become a people that, upon observing injustice and brokenness in our society, don’t cast all of our hope upon elections and who is sitting in the oval office, but first and foremost look to Jesus and the Church as the heavenly colony on earth, becoming the very glimpse of the age to come when Jesus returns to make all things new.

Everything changes. And the Church becomes weird. We become strange. The way we live, how we live, how we work, how our marriages look, how we look as young single people in a world of partying and sex and good times, everything changes because our prize has become better. Our prize as become Jesus and his Kingdom, and the day when all things are new.

I want to read this section from the Epistle of Diognetus. The author is unknown, and all we know is the person’s name who received the letter, but it is a work of apologetics, defending the early church to a pagan, probably greek, man. Listen to how the Church is described:

Christians are not distinguished from other men by country, language, nor by the customs which they observe…. Instead, they inhabit both Greek and barbarian cities, however things have fallen to each of them. And it is while following the customs of the natives in clothing, food, and the rest of ordinary life that they display to us their wonderful and admittedly striking way of life.

They live in their own countries, but they do so as those who are just passing through. As citizens they participate in everything with others, yet they endure everything as if they were foreigners. Every foreign land is like their homeland to them, and every land of their birth is like a land of strangers. They marry, like everyone else, and they have children, but they do not destroy their offspring. They share a common table, but not a common bed. They exist in the flesh, but they do not live by the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, all the while surpassing the laws by their lives. They love all men and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned. They are put to death and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich. They lack everything, yet they overflow in everything. They are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor they are glorified; they are spoken ill of and yet are justified; they are reviled but bless; they are insulted and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evildoers; when punished, they rejoice as if raised from the dead.

Are not those words remarkable? Is that not weird? Who lives like this? And why would you? What reward is there to be found in this life now by living in this manner? Physically speaking, there may be little to gained by such a life now. But if we are a citizen of Jesus’ Kingdom, if indeed Jesus is really who he said he was, and if indeed your life does not simply vanish and disappear upon death – if Christianity really is true, and its claims true, then when we read those words from that letter, it begins making sense. And how much does our world need a Church living like so today?

 

As we close, I want to ask a few questions to try and bring this home:

 

1) To return to Paul’s metaphor of a race, in your race of life, what are you running for? What is the prize that you are chasing after? What do you consider obstacles to gaining the prize you seek? If you could put an identity to these things, what would they be? If there are obstacles in your life to gaining that prize, what do you consider the hope to clear that path?

 

Sometimes we may claim that we are running after Christ, but we still may be running after money, after leisure, after pleasure, after retirement, after sex or power or a job promotion or raise. These things are mere counterfeit prizes that are no prizes at all, if they are ends unto themselves. These things are powerful, we may daydream, imagining some better scenario for ourselves that we may have on that day when we finally get the prize we’re seeking. But when you hold on to that prize, you will find yourself with a fist full of sand as it slips through your fingers, leaving you only with emptiness.

 

2) As citizens of heaven, do you allow America’s problems to become some sort of end-times gloom for you, where all hope is lost if this party or that party wins? I hear people talk about this candidate or that candidate being elected that, if they wound up in the White House, would be evidence that the world is ending.

 

Look, I don’t know. We live in a democracy, something Paul and the New Testament authors did not live in. They didn’t know what it was like to have a government which they actually participated in by vote. Only a small few could actually vote in the Roman Empire, whereas in America every citizen has it in their power to vote. Yes, we need to vote as to how we understand righteousness and justice to be. No doubt. That could be a conversation for a different day.

 

But as we live as citizens of heaven, we need to understand that if Wilmington is to have hope for its brokenness, if our neighbors and loved ones are to have hope, if injustice is to be reversed, we need to readjust where our feet run to first. I see too many Christians sprint towards complains and fears about politics and how all hope is lost if this or that situation occurs.

 

Rather than sprinting towards that conversation, what if the first fruits of our energy, what if our straining was given towards looking at the Church, this colony of heaven, to be the very entity that FIRST meets that need? Is that not what it means to be a colony of heaven, citizens of God’s Kingdom? If America has issues, which she does – yes, vote accordingly, but what if you FIRST looked to the Church, specifically to Immanuel, and said “What can we do?”

And what we are called to do is not just love our neighbor, but also love our enemy. What we are called to do is not just spread and tell the good news to the poor, but also to the rich. When our country is on fire against racism, the church is the ones that wants to ministry not just to the racially oppressed, but also to the racists in our nation. In this manner, the Church gets strange, it gets weird, and begins falling out of the national narrative of things we should or should not be doing. Jesus died for all peoples, for the rich and the poor, the black and white, for the muslim and the Jew, for the racist, for the redeemed KKK member, for the redeemed corrupt power hungry and trigger happy police officer as well as for those who are victims by their hands, for the people who have been oppressed for centuries beneath the US government. The Church is called to deliver the Good News to EVERYONE, and to see a redeemed people in Christ from all walks of life. This passage is preaching a complete and total realignment of our lives, for the compass to be that of Christ and his Good News. That is the implications of the race of Christ, that is the implications of our new citizenship in heaven, and that is the implication of the final prize being that of Jesus Christ and his Second Coming, when he makes all things new.

 

May we as Immanuel Church become a Good-News Church, at all costs, whatever it may cost us. Let us pray.