Lessons for Lent-Together, We Press On

I came across this article written By Rev. Elizabeth Lovell Milford.  I enjoyed it very much and thought it to be was very good. I adapted it to share it with you. The link to this blog post is at the bottom of this page if you wish to visit Rev Elizabeth’s website.

Philippians 3:4-14. New International Version

though I myself have reasons for such confidence. If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 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. But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in[a] Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

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I am continually impressed with those who have the discipline to run, even more so the ones who do it for fun. I have several friends who post about their training for marathons, including one who recently completed a Ragnar ultra-relay run, in which she and 5 friends combined ran 200 miles over a weekend. Seeing things like this remind me that I am in no way a runner.

I grew up playing soccer but was a defensive midfielder, which meant I spent most of the game in sprints and stops. I’m also horrible at pacing myself, so if I were to start out just trying to run, I would quickly reach maximum exertion and then be spent. Running without a ball or Frisbee to chase is of little appeal to me most of the time. I need to have some sort of objective.

So right now, I’m working my way through a program called “Couch25k” which gives a schedule of intervals of walking and jogging or running over the course of 9 weeks.  I’m starting week 4, and let me tell you, I’m not looking forward to it.

This is the week where things shift so you run twice as long as you walk, rather than in evenly paired intervals, and I know it’s going to be hard. I am tempted to stop, or to at least just remain with the more comfortable “easy” runs in which I didn’t feel like I was going to fall off the treadmill and my legs didn’t feel as rubbery.

 But, with you all as my witnesses, I’m not going to do that. I’m going to challenge myself to press on to the harder runs because I know that’s the only way I have any hope of actually reaching my goals this time around.

All of this to say is running is no joke. It takes commitment, hard work, and discipline. The same is true about our life of faith, which is something the apostle Paul knew well. In Philippians, he utilizes the image of an athlete to demonstrate that the Christian life is not about just a quick profession of faith in Jesus Christ and then sitting back and waiting until he comes again. As Fred Craddock writes, the image is quite the opposite:

Paul portrays himself in the least relaxed, most demanding posture he knows: as a runner in a race. His language is vivid, tense, repetitious: pressing, stretching, pushing, straining. In those words, the lungs burn, the temples pound, the muscles ache, the heart pumps, the perspiration rolls.

For Paul, faith is an active response marked by a sense of movement toward something more. And Paul is quick to point out what gets left behind.

He reflects in this letter about his many accomplishments as a successful student of the Torah who was zealous about fulfilling his religious obligations. He notes that he was one who “had it all” religiously speaking. He took part in the appropriate rituals and adhered to the letter of the law.

But then he references that moment we know from Acts 9 with his conversation on the road to Damascus and identifies that this has shifted his perspective drastically. Now, all that he once clung to as accomplishment is loss. The word in Greek he uses is translated by the NRSV as “rubbish,” but carries a much more graphic feel – you can substitute your own euphemism. Instead, he has discovered that there is a much greater goal than just checking off all the boxes on the activities card at church.

Pauls’ focus has shifted, and now he is zeroed in more directly on an engaged relationship with Jesus Christ. For Paul, this is a critical distinction and a straightforward reminder that our lives of faith are not as much about us as they are about Jesus. That is what he identifies as the gain.

Put simply, Jesus changes everything. Christ’s resurrection and claim on us as his own reorients us to a new way of being in the world that is forward-facing, not looking back to our own past achievements. The image of the runner here again is helpful. In running, it is usually less helpful to spend much time thinking about the road that is behind you. Instead, the focus needs to be on what lies ahead.

Sometimes, that means little increments. I remember doing conditioning runs each year at the beginning of soccer season when we had all neglected our training. As the team captains led us on a neighborhood run, I remember looking to telephone poles, large trees, street corners, anything I could to give myself a focus point on which to reach.

 By keeping my eye on something ahead, I found my feet were more likely to move forward. In the first century, however, runners may have had a different perspective. If you look at art from around that time and earlier, you find that the depictions are almost always of runners looking backward, suggesting that it may have been common to look over one’s shoulder when running as if you were being chased.

Of course, this will generally make for a slower run, and potentially a dangerous one if you don’t pay attention to what is coming up. Paul’s image in Philippians may have been provocative to those early readers, challenging them to see things from a different perspective and to take on a new way of thinking in relation to their lives of faith.

Maybe we need that reorientation, too. It is very easy in our lives of faith to get caught up in what has been done in the past and only note what we have experienced or have done before. This can be good, of course, as we recall those foundational and pivotal moments to our relationship with God. But it can also leave us with a belief system that is in the past, rather than one that engages us now in the present.

Paul, I think, would have our work to let go of the things in our past that distract or encumber us so that we can pay attention to the here and now. Then, we can look ahead and press on to the future that lies before us. In order to get there, he might suggest that we focus on the one who is responsible for it all – Jesus, who is indeed ahead of us. Consider the chorus to the old hymn as our refrain:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,

Look full in His wonderful face,

And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,

In the light of His glorious grace.

These words were written in 1922 by Helen Lemmel, and the verses speak to those struggling with weary hearts and to places where evil seems to envelop all light and hope with darkness. In the face of heartbreak and tragedy, these words are a powerful testimony to the transforming power of Jesus Christ; of the good news of the resurrection that said evil and sin in this world would never be the final answer. This is the hope of our faith, and it needs to be spoken over and over again – as natural disasters strike.

Live Faithfully

As people of faith, we need to cling to the hope that Jesus can and will change these realities. But our text from Paul also presses us to do more. Remember, he doesn’t instruct the Philippians to rest in this good news. He calls them to action.

Thoughts and prayers are important in times of struggle and good and right, but they themselves cannot be the end. We must press on towards more full participation in the life-giving transformative work that God has done and is doing in the world through Jesus Christ.

This means being a witness of compassion and love. This means looking around our own communities and asking if we are showing Christ to each other every day in ways that foster peace and usher in the kingdom of God. This means spending time in prayer and reflection on what our own “heavenly calls” might be, whether around these circumstances or others where we are passionate. Our work as disciples isn’t finished just because we are here confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord. In fact, that profession is just the beginning of the race and journey Paul talks about. And, it’s like the clichéd phrase reminds us, it isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon.

The life of faith is about action and continued discernment. This is what “pressing on” toward Jesus is all about, and our text for today urges us to examine our own lives and consider how well or not the decisions we are making are leading us in a closer relationship with Christ.

Paul helps remind us. Our “goal” is to pursue the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. That’s it. To be the most faithful in this time and place, and to press on to deeper levels of discipleship together, so that we might be transformed by the relationship we have with Jesus Christ. That’s why this has to be a process of prayer and conversation, attentive to our actions being a natural and earnest extension of our faith. This is what stewardship is all about.

Take Time Out

Over the next week, I encourage you to take this passage to heart and spend time in reflection and prayer with how you are running the race. Take time out to center yourself on Jesus and the call God is making to you, and press on to that goal of being the best disciple you can be with your time, your skills and abilities, and your financial resources.

In striving towards this goal, the Psalmist’s words will ring true, and we will also be those who “tell of the glory of God.” May the words of our mouths, the meditations of our hearts, and all that we do in response be done with this in mind, that they may be acceptable to God, our rock, and our redeemer.  Together, we press on.

 Adapted from the writings of  Rev. Elizabeth Lovell Milford

October 8, 2017

From <https://www.heritagepres.com/sundays-sermon-press-on-philippians-34b-14/>

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Paula Rose has a Bachelor of Pastoral Counselling and Theology, Vision Christian University, USA

Master of Arts In Counselling & Professional Development, specializing in Spiritual Abuse The University of Derby, UK.

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 Paula Rose Parish is an author, and the founder, of Hope. Faith. Love. She studied at the University of Derby and received a Master of Arts in Counselling in Professional Development. Over the years Paula Rose has served as a pastor, chaplain, counsellor, coach and taught at Christian university, led workshops and retreats, and spoken worldwide on Christian spirituality. Author of over 100 articles and two books, Paula Rose continues to write on the spiritual life. Paula Rose is adding a string to her bow and is presently reading Health and Wellness. She has four grown children, five grandchildren, and lives in South Wales, UK.

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