Gospel future - Philippians 3:17 - 4:1
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Do you know there are 40 shopping days left until Christmas! That's very reassuring to me as I usually leave it to the last minute to get presents particularly for my wife Sheena so If anyone has any good ideas I'm always open to suggestions!
No doubt many of our fellow citizens will spend many hours over the next month or so in Princess Quay, Meadowhall, the White Rose Centre & other shopping "Malls" as the Americans call them.
Several contemporary culture watchers have argued that early 21st century shopping is a sort of parable of our day & age. We no longer merely visit shops to purchase food & goods that will meet our physical needs. In the Shopping Centre & Supermarket of today, the goal is to see shopping as an end in itself.
The Princess Quays & Meadowhalls of this world are "palaces of pleasure" - the live music, the glass panels, the potted luxuriant vegetation, the grand water features; all these things contribute to enhance the sensation of shopping. It is almost as if the point of the purchase is not the usefulness of the commodity you've bought, so much as the enjoyment of the buying experience.
One British commentator (Mike Starkey Born to Shop) has pointed out that many of today's shopping centres have several similarities to places of worship but there is a significant difference. The emphasis in the Mall is to create a contemporary fantasy experience in the here & now. These modern "cathedrals of commerce" focus completely on this world, there is no place whatsoever for the world to come.
Doesn't this speak volumes for many people today? "Post modern" ideas (as current philosophical fads are sometimes called) induce doubt that there is meaning to life & so there is no real importance in the past nor to the future. Only what is happening now is significant. Many live in what has been called "a dominant & perpetual present." (Robinson Faith of the Unbeliever p57)
Well if that is something of the world we live in, our Bible reading tonight is hugely relevant.
Over recent weeks we've seen that the Apostle Paul has been encouraging these early Greek Christians in Philippi to "live a life worthy of the gospel of Christ". That theme is introduced in ch1:27 alongside the idea of "standing firm" - Our passage tonight (ch3;17 ff p1180) seems to bring the whole section to a conclusion with similar words 4:1 "That is how you should stand firm in the Lord dear friends."
So this evening we're going to see how "standing firm in the Lord" living "worthy" of the gospel of Jesus involves avoiding a limited earth bound perspective & vitally, cultivating an eternal, heavenly perspective.
1) Avoid a Limited, Earth Bound Perspective v18,19.
This last week has seen the death of Yasser Arrafat & much analysis has gone on as to his legacy but what is clear is that as an individual he has been a remarkable influence on others & on the situation in the Middle East.
As we live the Christian life we need to recognise that there are many who influence us some are good examples & models, so v17 Paul reminds the Philippians "Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you.
But sadly there are bad influences to avoid. Paul makes it clear to the Philippians that there are some who could influence them, who call themselves Christians, but actually are a very long way from proclaiming & living the gospel of Jesus.
Paul it seems has had to warn them before (as we saw last week) but he repeats himself because the danger is so serious; v18 "For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ." It's clear from the words of Jesus & the rest of the NT that the dangers the Philippians faced from "false teachers" will always be present we need to heed the warning as did they.
These people seem to be those who appear as Christian leaders, who "talk a good line & dupe the unwary & the undiscerning" (Carson) but they fail to have a clear focus on the cross like Paul's. By what they teach, some so-called Christian leaders encourage a very earth bound view that is incompatible with what Paul has been teaching.
V19 "Their destiny is destruction;" Those who would lead Christians astray as enemies of the cross will be judged in the end, for the only means of escaping judgement (the cross) they in some way deny.
Paul goes on "their god is their stomach" they're dominated by earth centred considerations & they prioritise this-worldly instincts & appetites not the perspective of Jesus. Rather than "glorying in Christ Jesus" & putting no confidence in the sinful self (as is the eg of Paul in 3: 3) these people revel in things of which they frankly ought to be mortified; "their glory is in their shame".
In a nutshell v19 "Their mind is on earthly things". Their whole orientation is earth bound. Their focus of belonging is just the arena where sin & opposition to God seem to rule. They are centered on a perspective on life that is merely about this world.
Now it is worth recognising that false teaching in it's various forms is so often a spiritualised version of what the world is saying. Non Christian, godless society sets an agenda which then some (even in the name of Jesus) take on board, placing over it a thin "Christian" sounding veneer.
Today much of the dangerous false teaching that can influence us is from those who have absorbed the perspective of "perpetual present" experience in the here & now is all important. So eg the endorsement of immoral active homosexual relationships by some church leaders is a form of v19, making the "stomach" god it is a legitimising of the indulgence of twisted personal appetites which rule over God's concerns. What they really value, "glory in" is about as far from God's glory as you can get it is shameful!
More subtly, (& perhaps closer to home) much of today's so called "new spirituality" has influenced mystically minded Christians. In contemporary "New age spirituality" the emphasis seems to be on the internal human spirit rather than the external divine Spirit. One Christian writer (Yves Raguin) influenced by such non Christian thinking writes that this has taught him not to search for a God on high, but "to look towards my inner being facing my human nature" a mind again on "earthly things" - even if dressed up in "spiritual" clothing.
So much contemporary Christian teaching emphasises how I am feeling, how God is touching me, how much of what God really only promises in the future can be available to help me now. It may sound spiritually impressive but it is really the thoughts of those v19 "whose minds are on earthly things" rather than the glory of the true & living God, centred on the crucified & risen Jesus.
Absorbing the world's ideas is so easy for Christians & we need to continually help each other not to merely go with the flow of contemporary non Christian culture with its limited & selfish views of the use of time, resources, money & the purpose of life.
Just before we move on notice how Paul speaks to these Christians. He has to deal with serious things, But his is not a cold, detached analysis, nor is he spiteful or hard. As he warns them of false teachers he does so with passion & deep engagement; 18For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears many live as enemies of the cross of Christ." And as he speaks of these Christians he is serving he does so with clear warmth & affection 4;1 "brothers (he fondly calls them), whom I love & long for, (my joy & my crown)".
Part of Paul's example to us then, is his heart felt appeal to "stand firm," living live lives worthy of the gospel & this involves avoiding a limited, earth bound perspective on life.
The other side of the same coin is in v20-21;
2) Cultivate an Eternal, Heavenly Perspective v20-21.
There was a time when it was fashionable in some Christian circles to use the phrase "You can be so heavenly minded you become no earthly use".
If it meant there's a danger that we can hide away & never put our faith into practice, then fair enough but it seems to me that what we learn here is that to be of earthly use, we need to be heavenly minded!
I had to renew my passport some months ago. Passports are centered on national identity it would be interesting how many different national passports are represented by those who come to St John's! National identity has great geographical & political significance.
But there is an even more important spiritual reality however, whatever our earthy nationality. If we are Christians our "citizenship" v20 "is in heaven".
Heaven is of course where Jesus is now after his resurrection & ascension. Heaven is where he rules & that is where we ultimately belong. Heaven is, if you like, where our government is & as it's citizens we are to reflect its life now & live in the light of our future in what we call "heaven.".
v20 "But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus ChristThis is our future hope Jesus will return & he will return as Saviour who will bring in God's full rule. The rule of heaven, will be known on earth. This is the kind of perspective on life we need to cultivate.
The Christian life is not merely driven by what is happening now, by what I feel now, by the concerns of "earthly things." We belong to heaven, so heaven's priorities will be our supreme influence & what we know will be the future, will interpret for us today's challenges & opportunities.
The old Marxist jibe that Christianity is "pie in the sky when you die" has so often really unsettled Christians. Perhaps we've overreacted & so emphasised the benefits of being God's people now that we have too easily allowed a non Christian view of reality to take hold, a view that sees life solely about the present. This has at times meant we underplay our inheritance as people of the future.
But v21 "our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ." Knowing this is really the motivation to live life to the full now, because we know that this is not all there is we are not merely confined to the present - we are a people with destiny! (P)
-- Paul goes on to outline something of the specific content of our hope hope which can help us live in the present; V21 "(Jesus), by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body."
When Jesus returns that could be before we die or after his authority as Lord will be made known in the entire world & the world will be transformed. That will affect the whole created order but in particular we're reminded here that it will involve the "lowly bodies" of Christians.
Now we all know that our bodies are wasting & aging they ware out some of us may feel it more than others but it is true for everyone.
When everything is brought under Jesus' authority & control when he returns he "will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body".
Jesus was given a glorious physical body after his death on the cross at his resurrection - & his body of glory is the model for ours at his return. His resurrection is the guarantee of our resurrection.
It was international news a few weeks ago when Superman actor Christopher Reeve died. Following his riding accident in 1995 he became perhaps the world's best know severely disabled person.
Some of you will have also heard of Joni Eareckson (no relation as far as I know to the England football manger)!
Joni, a contemporary of Christopher Reeve, had a diving accident 30 odd years ago now which left her at 17 (like Reeve in his 40s) with quadriplegia - paralyzed from the neck down. Following her accident Joni was understandably overwhelmed by bitterness, frustration, anger & depression. Through a period of rehabilitation & support from family & friends & very significantly the blossoming of her childhood Christian faith, Joni was able gradually to climb out of her deep black hole.
Joni discovered the uniquely Christian perspective on life rooted in the truth of the Bible's teaching about resurrection. In one of her books she says; "I can scarcely believe it. I, with shriveled, bent fingers, atrophied muscles, gnarled knees and no feeling from the shoulders down, will one day have a new body, light, bright, and clothed in righteousness - powerful and dazzling.
Can you imagine the hope this gives someone spinal cord-injured like me? Or someone who is cerebral palsied, brain-injured, or who has multiple sclerosis? Imagine the hope this gives someone who is manic depressive. No other religion, no other philosophy promises new bodies, hearts and minds. Only in the Gospel of Christ, do hurting people find such incredible hope." (Heaven Your Real Home p53)
Jesus v21 "will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body" & so in place of frail, physically wasting, mortal bodies we shall be given supernatural bodies, strong & incorruptible, perfectly fitted for life with God in his heaven (cf 1Cor15). There will then be no more illness, no more fears about life, no more doubts, and questions. There will be no more broken or tense relationships, no more opposition or persecution, no more disappointments or frustrations, life will be transformed immeasurably for the better.
As we close let me tell you about Lesslie Newbegin. He was a remarkable man who died just a couple of years ago. He was born here in the North of England & spent many years as a missionary in Southern India. When he returned to Britain some years ago he found himself with a unusual opportunity to critique Western society & ideology having lived in a country with a different worldview for so long.
In one of his books "The other side of 1984" (p1) he said this "In the subsequent years of ministry in [the UK] I have often been asked 'What is the greatest difficulty you face in moving from India to England?' I have often answered 'The disappearance of hope!'"
Many in today's world (even some so called Christian leaders) merely "have their minds set on earthly things." There is no reason to find value in the past & there is indeed, a "disappearance of hope" for the future. All that seems to be real is the "perpetual present." But such an outlook on life is bound to disintegrate into anxiety & hopelessness for the here & now cannot bear the weight of human expectation.
As "citizens of heaven" now however, we await the fulfilment of our hope when Jesus returns. That hope is the transformation of the whole of creation & in particular the transformation of our bodies.
Only this eternal perspective can help us keep going as Christians despite the knocks, only such a future focus can help us "stand firm in the Lord" (v1). Only looking to a heavenly horizon can strengthen us as we seek to live lives "worthy of the gospel of Christ" in the here & now.
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