Conversion, co-operation, commission

Date: 
Sunday, October 1, 2017 - 11:00 to 12:00

Like many of you, I'm sure, we have watched with interest and awe the Invictus Games.  They might not classify as the games of the Olympiad, but in their own very unique and special way, they have intrigued and inspired those who watched them.  One evening as I was watching them I was reminded of a time in my childhood, one that I have mentioned on one occasion before, when I was attending the school for mentally and physically handicapped children. 

I was there because I had undergone operations and couldn't walk properly for a while so I couldn't attend a so-called normal school. It was a strange.  I remember one day in particular when a teacher asked us to do something.  We didn't have gym class, of course, because there were children bound by wheelchairs; others wearing prostheses, or braces, and still others who were simply unable to comprehend what they were to do. 

What the teacher did was challenge us to walk along one of two long beams.  One by one, each of us determined which beam we were going to walk on and, one by one, we tried.  The children who had leg prosthesis had a great difficulty balancing and toppled over.  Those, who like myself were walking with a cane, had nowhere to balance ourselves and had to step off. 

There were others who had, for example, large casts on, but found that they too would lose their balance and they couldn't do more than a couple of steps before stepping off.  It was very difficult, and painful to watch. I must confess I was heartbroken and had no understanding why the teacher would want us to do this.  But after we had all tried and we had all failed, he said, “I'd like you to try something. I would like one of you on each beam at the same time, side by side, and I want you to join arms and then I want you to try again.” 

As we did so, we were able to maintain our balance and kept each other going until every single one of us managed to get to the end of the beams.  And he said after it was all over, “You see, in this life there may be moments when you feel you cannot do things, but if you do those things together, if you seek the guidance and the strength of one another, you can achieve anything.”  It was a profound and a memorable moment. 

In many ways, those who have been involved in the Invictus Games have felt exactly the same thing.  You might not feel that you're unable, that you're not capable of getting somewhere, but with the guidance, support and the strength of others you can achieve mighty things. 

When the Apostle Paul was writing in the Book of Philippians, he was saying the same thing about our walk with God.  It was a time when many people genuinely felt that individuals could live their Christian faith and life on their own. There was no need for the church, for the communion of the Holy Spirit, for anything more than simply desire to do what God would have us do.  It was rooted in Greek individualism that characterised so much of the philosophy of the time, when the pursuit of perfectionism and the absolute autonomy of the individual was seen as being the highest good.  I think it is fascinating that 2,000 years later we're struggling with exactly the same challenge.  We live in a day and age that is characterised again by that kind of rugged individualism, and the belief that somehow, we are autonomous creatures and that the highest good is to receive as Kurt Goldstein wrote, “our own self-actualisation.”

In other words, we become fully and truly autonomous beings, fulfilling ourselves with our own goals and abilities and getting to the end of the bar proudly on our own.  I am delighted to say that in recent years that myth has been challenged by the Kielburgers. The whole notion of from me to we, which young people have been involved in this week, here in Toronto, has been a sign that perhaps the foundations of that autonomous self-actualising, self-possessed ideology, is crumbling at its base. 

The problem is, it still affects the way that a lot of people see the world. A lot of people see their faith as a private thing, where all that matters is them and God, and if they can live up to what God wants for them then their life is full. They have reached their goal and won the prize by being in sync with God.  This drives a lot of people and their faith, but at the same time it lacks what Paul would say, maturity.

The Apostle Paul is an antidote to that kind of thinking.  He offers a totally different view of the Christian faith than the autonomous perfect individual, standing before God. He represents something that is more rooted in Christ and more grounded in community.  If you look at the language from our reading this morning, you will see the clear call he is making.  He's writing to the Philippians, pleading with them not to just seek their own goals, their own visions of perfection; not to strive just for themselves, but for something more. 

First he says, “I want you to press on, to hold onto that which Christ has already taken hold of for you.”  In other words, Christ is the foundation; Christ gives the call; Christ becomes the power and the impetus. I think Paul was probably looking back to his experience on the road to Damascus.  When he says “I press on,” he's implying that his experience where Christ took hold of him saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me” was something greater than just that. Through that encounter he was transformed from Saul into Paul; Christ has taken hold of him. But he also realises, after that encounter, after that moment of conversion, that he cannot stop growing.  “I press on,” he said, “I leave what is behind and I look to what is ahead, I have never reached perfection and I am looking to where Christ is calling me.” 

It is important to have a sense that Christ has this call on your life, that it's not just about our own self-actualisation, our own perfection, our own power, and our own individual autonomy. It is about the call of Christ in our lives that really matters, and what Christ wants us to be. 

I was reading an inspirational article just a couple of weeks ago on an interview with the great actor, Denzel Washington. Denzel Washington is one of my favourite actors, and now perhaps even more so, because Denzel is, as you probably know already, a very devout Christian. 

When he was being interviewed about his own Christian faith, he declared this, quite honestly and openly:

I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, I've been filled with the Holy Spirit, I know it's real.  I was in the room, my cheeks blew up, I cried like a baby and it scared me to death.  It kind of scared me off it really. I backed up and went in the other direction. To be honest with you, I didn't know what was going on, it was too strong.  It has taken me many years to discover and mature and to come back around to that moment.

Even Denzel Washington, who had this incredible experience of God, had been grasped by God experience, still knew that he needed to mature, to come back around.

That's what Paul's getting at: “I press on to hold onto that which Christ has already held on me.”  In other words, I'll walk with God, I'll race, and I'll run, it's a life that is in response to Christ's invitation and call, but alone, that is not enough.  Paul talks about a form of cooperation.  He says, “I press on to the heavenward or the heavenly goal.”  The language that he's used in Greek is clearer than we can capture in English; it's like running to a line and throwing out your chest to cross a line, like a runner does in a race. 

Paul sees that having already been seized by Christ, he thrusts his chest forward to cross the line.   He knows that crossing that line is not something he does on his own, rather he does it because of the heavenward call of Christ.  The Christian life is not a life where we just press on, but we press on to the one who calls us and empowers us to get there. 

As you know, we're going to be celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation on October 29th.  Do not underestimate the significance of this historic moment, friends.  It is a moment of great historical significance for the world, but it is also an historic event in the life of the Christian community.  Why?  Because, as we will hear later and I do not want to give away, the commitment of Martin Luther to the authority of scripture and the discipleship of the body of Christ.  Because of his concern for the authority of scripture, and because he wanted it to focus on Christ and Christ alone, he brought the church back to its original calling and purpose.  In reading about Martin Luther a great deal recently, I ran across this, written by Victor Shepherd, and I thought what a wonderful summary of the way Martin Luther sees the cooperative nature of the church and of Christ. 

Christians are gloriously freed from their preoccupations, Christians do not live in themselves, they live in Christ, through faith, and in their neighbours through love.  Christians are taken out of themselves, directed toward their Lord and toward those whom their Lord has given them to serve.  The result?  Christians are free from anxious self-concern, and free for self-forgetful service of their fellow sufferers and human beings.  Henceforth, we live in Christ by faith and in our neighbour through love. 

What a fantastic summary of the Reformation and what a wonderful description of what the Christian life would be, and how in keeping it is with the Apostle Paul.  We mustn't be preoccupied with ourselves, but rather by being in Christ we love our neighbours; by being in Christ, we run this race but we do not run it alone.  On the two beams that are working their way forwards, we cannot simply hop on and do it on our own, but we press on to the heavenly call of Christ.  What an image. 

There's one final image, and that is also of a runner, and it's about running this race.  Paul says, “Please join one another with me.” The race to serve Christ, to find fulfilment in Christ, is not a solitary thing.  We do it not only with Christ's power and help; we do it one with another. 

I think those are fitting words as we wait for the covenanting service for Lori (Reverend Hill).  I say so because there are a couple of things you need to know about Lori, if you don't already.  One of them is that there is no doubt that the call of Christ is the ultimate call that seizes her life, and because of that, her ministry is moved and shaped by her desire to follow Christ's leading.  The other one is just as important, she's a runner, an athlete, and because she's an athlete she knows the call of crossing the line, and the sense of satisfaction at having strived for it.  What a combination, a runner who wants to serve Jesus Christ. 

This is what Paul would have in mind; but not just running a race, running towards a goal, and knowing that goal is not something that we strive towards on our own, but that we do it with one another.  We do it as a community of faith, we do it as the church.  In his great book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer described the Christian life in this way, "It is impossible to become a new person as a solitary individual; the new person means more than the individual believer after they have been justified and sanctified, it means the church, the Body of Christ.  In fact, it means Christ himself." 

For Dietrich Bonhoeffer and for Martin Luther before him, and the Apostle Paul, the Body of Christ is the body that moves the world towards that heavenly call and it is not something we do on our own.  Lori might be able to run great marathons, she might be able to scale great mountains, I don't know.  She may be able to walk through walls, she might be able to do all manner of incredible things, but she's never going to be able to do it on her own, anymore than any clergy or any elders or any lay leaders can do it on their own. 

The church is not simply a series of individuals who possess individual gifts; we are a group of individuals, a whole ecclesia of individuals, who are called together to run the race towards the heavenly call of Christ. And that includes you.  That is why tonight's service is so important.  It's not about Lori, it's not about Jean, and it's not about me.  It's about us and it's about the way that we seek to follow Christ. Your call this day, your conviction and your commission is to join Christ in that heavenly call and to live it in such a way that you live with him, that you live it in love for your neighbour.  This is the great race.  Amen.