An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Aiming to Know Christ

A sermon on Philippians 3:4b-14 by Nathan Nettleton

Regular participation in what we do here each Sunday evening is a valuable spiritual discipline. As many of you can attest, over a period of time it can be quite life-changing. As some of you can attest, when combined with a daily pattern of other spiritual disciplines such as prayer, meditation, scripture reading, solidarity with others, and mutual accountability, it can be very very powerful indeed. It can lead us into a depth of encounter with Christ that we might previously have hardly dared imagine. And yet as many of you are also aware, it is quite possible, and perhaps even somewhat inevitable, for the power of it to wane so that after a while it seems no longer to carry us forward on a wave the way it once did. We find that somehow, we have grown used to it, or a little immune to it, and that it no longer charges our week with the same spiritual vitality and the same all-enveloping sense of Christ’s presence. What are we to make of this? Does that mean it was just some sort of mind game, some sort of emotional pep-up after all? Were we kidding ourselves to think it was something more?

The goal of knowing Christ is notoriously elusive. First and foremost this is because of who Christ is. I mean, let’s face it, knowing anybody at a truly intimate level is notoriously elusive. We do not have access to any knowledge of a person other than through our own perceptive faculties — our senses, and the ways we have learned to interpret what we take in through our senses. And even just basic information like what a person looks like does not come across to everyone else the same. We notice different things, value different things, and form different conclusions about what we are seeing. When we start trying to understand what really makes a person tick, it gets far far more complicated and dependent on our all too fallible perception skills and interpretative tools.

When we are seeking to get to know Christ, there is another significant layer of complexity involved. Now we are seeking to know someone who is another step removed from what we can access with our senses. When we see another person, we may not be able to be sure that we are seeing them right, but we can usually be sure that we are seeing them. But with Christ, we can only see him as he becomes present in other things and other people, which he is constantly doing, but that means that we now have two layers of interpretation to do — deciding whether we are seeing Christ, and deciding what we should understand from what we are seeing of Christ. And again, that is only the sense of sight; hearing Christ, understanding Christ, and empathising with Christ still lie beyond us. So it is no wonder, and perhaps some comfort, that the Apostle Paul says quite clearly that he has not, himself, reached or obtained this goal, but that he presses on towards it. At least we are in good company!

In the pressing on, we come up against another set of issues; not this time about who Christ is, but about who we are. Paul describes his own version of the problem in the reading we heard. He calls it “confidence in the flesh”. Another phrase for it might be “believing you’ve got what it takes and you can do it yourself”. Paul says that for himself, if you could have what it takes and do it yourself, he’d be in there with about the best chance imaginable. On all the recognised lists of spiritual formation and accomplishment available in his day, he scored well. In fact he was top of the class. But, he says, he has come to see his impeccable qualifications as more of a hindrance, because the trouble with being so well qualified is that it is easy to keep succumbing to the temptation to believe that that is enough; to believe that you have got what it takes and that you can do it yourself. And at that point he employs some characteristically crass language, and says that such a belief is a lot of crap. (Most English translations politely clean it up and say ‘garbage’, but Paul said ‘crap’!)

And it is to just such crappy thinking that I am afraid that we here could be particularly susceptible. You see the reason Paul was vulnerable to such thinking was precisely because the things he had done were so good. His learning, his prayer, his discipline, his religious heritage; these were good things. He doesn’t renounce them. He doesn’t leave them behind. But he struggles to keep them in their place and prevent himself from allowing their very goodness to delude him into seeing them as a substitute for genuine intimacy of relationship with Christ.

Most of us are convinced that what we are doing here is very good. As I said before, we have experienced its power to move us, and form us, and shape us in ways that are very good. Our patterns of worship and the covenant disciplines that some of us seek to live by are indeed things that any congregation might be justifiably proud of. They are things which I hope we will continue to grow in and develop and build our common life around. But just like Paul’s c.v., they have their own danger. Their very goodness can delude us into thinking that just participating in them is enough. That by being here, being a part of this, we’ve got it made. We’ve got what it takes and we are, by our own admirable efforts, creating genuine depth and intimacy in our relationship with Christ. Such thinking would be exactly what Paul writes off as crap. And like Paul, while we don’t need to renounce the good things we have, we do need to keep them firmly in their place and refuse to allow them to become idols to us. Ironic as it may seem, the best of spiritual disciplines can easily mutate into idols in our own minds; into things that are not God but which we put our trust in to give us the spiritual focus and meaning we need.

When we go through times when our participation in the worship and spiritual disciplines of this congregation don’t seem to have the powerful impact on us that they have had at other times, perhaps we ought to hear that as a valuable reminder that we cannot depend on them to do it all for us. Perhaps it is at those times that God is calling us to press on harder, to quit coasting and to strive to open ourselves more radically to the gracious gift of knowing Christ and being found in him. Ultimately it is a gift. That’s why nothing we can do, no matter how good, can make it happen. All the spiritual disciplines in the world are only going to help if they enable us to open our hands and our hearts to receive the gift. If we turn them into idols and put our trust in them, they will blind us to the gift and turn us away from the giver. But if they confront us with our empty handedness and strengthen us to resist the temptation to try to make something happen, they are doing their job. And so ultimately, the times when our participation in these disciplines of worship and formation seems to fail to do what we want it to do, may actually be the times when it is most doing what we need it to be doing: calling us beyond techniques and processes and helps, into a radical openness and dependence on the one who longs to be known by us and whose very life is given to us as a gift.


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