“All for Jesus”
(From Philippians 3: 4-14b)
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
One of the things that pastors are always on the lookout to find is a good illustrative story. Seminaries recommend to their students that they keep files, physical, mental or both, in which to store good stories about life events that will preach well to their congregations. Like the parables Jesus shared, good stories provide practical everyday life illustrations of important biblical lessons and truths that help guide us along life’s journey of faith.
I recently filed away a story that is a great illustration of our scripture lesson for today from Paul’s letter to the Philippian Church. It is a story about a man named Dave Isay who, back in 2016, saw the contentious and adversarial path our country was taking, and responded by founding a company named “One Small Step”. It is an extension of another brainchild of Isay’s known as StoryCorps. Founded in 2006, StoryCorps placed recording booths in Grand Central Station, a great repository for people traveling throughout our country and the world. The purpose of the booths is to allow a place for these travelers to tell and record their life stories. All of the recordings are housed in the Library of Congress. Yet, each Friday, NPR airs the story the StoryCorps Committee chooses as most compelling for that week. Just imagine how many life stories have been shared through the medium of StoryCorps; stories of both great joy and intense hardship and pain.
It is in the image of StoryCorps that Isay founded “One Small Step.” One Small Step is Isay’s attempt to make a dent in the great political and socio-economic divide facing our nation. Isay invite’s people of differing ideologies to share their personal biographies and stories with one another across a table of openness and listening. It is not a table of ideological debate, but a table for learning and understanding our common humanity. The small portion of a One Small Step session that was aired featured two women; one a liberal, and the other a conservative from the south. Each read the other’s biographical story aloud, not as fodder for a debate, but to learn how their stories shared many common threads. Although their politics differed, both were mothers who shared the common concern that our divided nation is not a good legacy to leave their children. Both women held deeply rooted religious beliefs and faith. In short, each woman learned about the “personhood” of the other woman sitting across from her. As a member of the One Small Step team shared with newswoman Norah O’Donnell, “It is difficult to hate when people call out our common life.”
Isay fashioned his purpose for One Small Step upon the foundation of a well-practiced psychological concept. It holds that there is a benefit from bringing people of differing backgrounds and beliefs together in a controlled environment. Sharing dreams and concerns, people learn about and experience shared commonalities they would not otherwise have known existed between them. Some of the anger and hate, hopefully, melts away, as people see the common link of humanity within those with whom they disagree. For Isay, this is a way to do something positive, to take “One Small Step” toward closing the gap within our divided nation. It is what he can do, the role he can play, in helping to help build a better world.
In our first scripture lesson today from Philippians, we read about the impressive autobiography of the Apostle Paul, and of his résumé of personal accomplishments. Not only was Paul an Israelite and a former Pharisee, but he was also a Roman citizen, an unusual combination for Jewish person of his time. Yet, he had come to understand, through the course of his transition from Pharisee Saul to minister and missionary for Christ Jesus, Paul, that his worldly pedigree was quite meaningless when it came to his life in the eternal kingdom of God. Paul testified to the Philippians that only his faith in Christ Jesus, and the righteousness that resulted from that faith, any longer meant anything to him. Everything else he considered to be worthless. Even with that understanding, Paul also realized the importance of his continued pressing on toward what lay ahead for him in his faith-driven mission for Christ Jesus. All would be done for the glory of God in Christ, as he continued to fulfill the heavenly call he had received.
In his Letter to the Church at Rome, Paul admonished his readers with these words, “We should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but speaking the truth in love, may we grow up in all things into Him who is our head-Christ-from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.” In short, Paul both believed and taught that each of us, working together in love and accomplishing our own unique part, plays a role in building the kingdom of God. We do this all for Jesus, and in his precious name.
I suspect that by now you have seen how the story about the work of Dave Isay connects with the teaching of the Apostle Paul from our lesson today. It is not what we do for ourselves in this world, but the good we do in building God’s eternal kingdom right in the here and now that really matters. This is, perhaps, one of Paul’s simplest and most direct lessons. There is not a lot of the long and repetitive circular logic, for which Paul is so well known, found here. Yet, although Paul’s meaning is simple and direct, it is anything but easy to live out in the real world. To truly count one’s own pedigree and accomplishments in this world as nothing, and to leave the life of personal gain behind to seek the good of kingdom of God with all that we have and are, takes real courage and strength. It also takes some creative thinking, like the “One Small Step” program of Dave Isay, to help us overcome the societal barriers that divide us, and thwart the best of our intentions.
I believe that this sacrifice of self is what Jesus was referring to when he revealed that his true followers, true disciples, are those ready and willing to denying themselves and take to up their own cross, so that they might follow him. It can be a burdensome cross to deny the enticement of the world and its standards of accomplishment and gain. Yet, the Holy Scriptures teach us that nothing that is done in this world will last, but only the good that is done in love for humanity, and which furthers the eternal kingdom of God in Christ. But, church, the world is an enticing place to live. It is sometimes difficult for us to remember just whose we are in the midst of its subtle and beckoning hold upon us. We need consistent ongoing reminders to stay our course of living, as Jesus taught us when he lived among us. That is one of the reasons we need our blessed church family. We gather here each week to share the strength of community, as well as the challenges of accountability to living according to our faith. We also need the ongoing power of the blessed Holy Spirit working in and through our lives. The Spirit guides us, sometimes gently, and sometimes with the power of a plank of lumber striking us upside of our head, back to Jesus. His love, his compassion, his grace toward us is all that really matters, and it means everything to us. This 5thSunday in Lent, we are, again, reminded of exactly who we are and whose we are. We are the people of God in Christ, living his love in our world today to build his eternal kingdom. When it is finally all said and done, brothers and sisters in Christ, only that which furthers the kingdom will remain, only that which was “all for Jesus.” Amen!