Philippians 3:4-14 (click to display NIV text)
October 28, 2012 (Reformation Sunday)
Pastor Dwight A. Nelson
“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.”
There are two words we use to define our heritage: “protest” and “reform.” We are a church that comes out of a movement called the Reformation. We are also known as Protestants, or “PROTEST-ants.” But today is called Reformation Sunday — our focus is on reform rather than protest. Sometimes it is necessary to protest, but today we are called to reform, to consider the words of Paul in Philippians that call us to a reformation of the heart.
Today we remember a tradition that set its foundations in Scripture, grace, faith and Christ, and set the foundations in those four alone. The Reformation of 500 years ago was suspicious of any “adding to” these four foundations, because any addition necessarily distorts them. Reform in this sense was seen as a return, a cutting back of layers of accommodation, compromise and rationalization. It is a willingness to cut away all that we do both in our individual lives and in our institutional lives to sets things in our favor, to make the world work for us, to justify ourselves. Such cutting back is hard work.
A few weeks ago an announcement was made that there would be some tree trimming at the church on Saturday morning. I thought I would join the group; it sounded like fun and I would probably be home by noon and could plan something for the rest of the day. Instead, I got home at about 5 p.m. and spent the rest of the day on the couch! A little tree trimming turned out to be hard work for the valiant crew who spent the day sawing and dragging limbs and chipping branches and hauling logs.
Whenever you do tree trimming or pruning, the first impression is that you cut too much. You look and some of the comfort of the surroundings is gone: the beauty of the overhanging buckthorn, the familiarity of the tree that had already died — it all seems too bare all of a sudden.
In the same way the hard work of cutting back to Scripture, faith, grace and Christ is costly; it makes you feel exposed, convicted, and vulnerable. But this is the work that renews and restores us. Reformation! We remember a tradition that taught us to look at where we are placing our confidence, and cut back all that which has grown in over the essentials of Christ, grace, faith and Word.
The kind of reforming that Paul writes about in Philippians is more than trimming, as important as that is. There is a reforming that is much more like the wobbling vessel on the potters’s wheel, being reduced again to a lump of clay and then refashioned into a worthy vessel. There are times when that kind of reforming must be done in our hearts.
Paul talks about his life. Through the years he built a life that made him confident in his standing before God. On the Final Day he could stand before God and tell him of his heritage in the faith — people of Israel, tribe of Benjamin, Hebrew of Hebrews, circumcised on the eighth day. He could go on to confidently stand on what he had accomplished: studying to become a Pharisee, filled with zeal for God, following the law in a faultless way so that he could present to God his righteous life. But as he was building that confident life, adding one success after the other, he missed Christ. Not only that, but he also opposed Christ.
So Paul’s confidence became his loss. He discovered how much better it was to know Christ. So the vessel he had become on the wheel had to become a lump again, pushed down until all that he had was faith, grace, Christ and Word. In that new life he became outwardly less secure and less comfortable. He became vulnerable, persecuted, rejected, incarcerated, and at times homeless. Yet this is precisely when he began to live. He was never at home in whom he had become through his achievements. He became truly Paul when he became Paul in Christ. He writes of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. He no longer carried with him a righteousness of his own from the law, but now knew the righteousness by faith in Christ.
Is the life you are growing and building and developing these days moving you more and more toward Christ, or is it causing you to miss Christ? Is your confidence in what you are accomplishing going to be enough when you stand before God on the Final Day?
Frank Thielman writes, “If human privilege and attainment could form a stable foundation on which to stand in the final day, then Paul’s own pre-Christian foundation was firm indeed. But the ground of the Christian’s confidence is Christ rather than any human privilege.”
The reformation of the human heart is not complete until we reach the goal. So we are to press on, to strain toward what is ahead. This is the heavenward call. Paul says, “I want to know Christ.” In that he is speaking of an experience in Christ that leads ultimately to resurrection. In Jeremiah 31, the prophet talks about a new covenant. This new covenant will be written on the hearts of God’s people, and it will cause people to know God from the heart. Teaching will not be necessary, because the knowledge of God will be in hearts and minds. This is what Paul believes has come in Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is in knowing Christ that Paul changed the direction of his life. Up until then his life had been all upward, as if he was climbing a ladder. He was constantly striving to the next accomplishment, the next honor, the next promotion, and the next higher place of leadership. His life was all about his own advancement. And then Christ called him off the ladder of success to instead move forward into Christ’s future. “Forward” took him to new places, new people, a new calling, a new hope.
His new vocabulary becomes “Press on” and “strain toward what is ahead.” So reformation is always about leaving the ladder we are on, and instead following Christ into his future.
A few years ago a doctor told me I was at the age when I should not climb ladders anymore. He had seen enough of accidents of 60-year-olds who felt like they could still do it, but whose balance was just not what it used to be. There is a time in the life of faith as well when we should stop climbing ladders. There is a time in the Lord when we come to realize that forward is better than upward. Maybe the Lord calls us more to teach than to learn, more to help others than to achieve for ourselves, more to listen rather than to debate, more to serve rather than to always lead. Maybe that is what reformation of the heart is all about: You come to a place where the Word is your only authority, Christ your only salvation, faith and grace your only resources. And in that freedom you face the future, you press on toward the goal. The problem with ladders is that even if you don’t fall off, you can become comfortable with your perch and you don’t really get anywhere. The tyranny of excellence drives you to a lonely place. But when your heart is truly re-formed by Christ, by knowing Christ and being in Christ, he leads you on a path that has some meaning to it. He leads you forward to his kingdom.
Carl Rosenius wrote that the righteousness that is given through Jesus Christ is like the vast ocean. “Those who receive this abundance of grace shall ‘reign in life through the one-man Jesus Christ.’ Since they are one with Adam in the fall, they are also one with Christ in his victory and triumph. Since he is righteous they too, are righteous. Since he is King they are kings. Since he has an eternal life they also have eternal life. They are one in Christ.”
Reformation: “Word alone, grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone.” The Spirit re-forms our hearts in Christ and sets us on the way to life.