“If anyone else thinks he has reason for 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; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order 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 comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith-
that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.
Brothers, and sisters, do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,
I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
My husband Allan and I have had the blessing of attending a worship service, led by my friend and brother in Christ from Seminary, Pastor John Asante. Pastor John leads a Ghanian Baptist church in Millbury, Ma. They are associated with American Baptist Churches and are also part of TABCOM. Let me tell you, if you have never been to Ghanian church, you are missing OUT!! They dance in Ghanian church. They dance to express their praise and worship to Jesus….and it is something to see. It is impossible not to be caught up in it. So, when we go to Ghanian church, we dance too. And it is awesome.
The last time we went to visit Pastor John and his church, he was leading a year-end service of praise and thanksgiving. They celebrate their THANKSGIVING at the end of the calendar year….which is, I think, a pretty good idea. As the year draws to a close, the people of Pastor John’s church gather together to think about all of the blessings that God has given them in the past year, both as individuals and as a Church body. It is extremely powerful.
I could not help thinking, as I got swept up in this beautiful service, about ALL that God has done in my life this past year. One of the best ways to make room in one’s heart for God, is the practice of daily gratitude. Gratitude focuses one’s mind and heart on what one has- not on what one lacks. Gratitude reminds us of what God has done for us and keeps us in a place of humble surrender.
Surrender……a word that can make many of us, myself included, a little uncomfortable…..
This is the time of year when we get ready to say goodbye to one year and hello to another. Many of us make the dreaded New Years Resolutions- – lose 25 pounds, give up sugar, give up smoking, be more positive, join the gym……Many of us will make these resolutions with reservations- knowing that by February or March we will have given up and gone back to being sugar eating, negative couch potatoes. Many of us will look back on 2018 and think about the challenges and blessings that this year held for us.
Some of us here might be very happy to see things GO. I felt that way a few years ago, in 2016- the year my mother died after a long and terrible battle with Dementia. It had been a battle for certain. And as her long beleaguered caregiver- I was exhausted. Emotionally. Physically. Spiritually. I was READY to say goodbye to 2016.
But then I remembered that, in my experience- God never leaves us to fight the battle alone. In my experience, God gives us blessings amidst the challenges. God gives us strength for the day and bright hope for tomorrow.
2016 was also the year that I was called into vocational ministry by First Baptist Westwood. It was the year that I found a church home – and welcome and encouragement in The American Baptist Churches. When I seriously considered things, as difficult and painful as 2016 had been-it was also filled with blessings. It is never really one thing or another. Life is very rarely one thing or another. Life is very rarely black or white. The older I get, the more I begin to understand this. When was younger and first “on fire” for Jesus- I was a lot less flexible…..and my faith was a lot less flexible as a result. I was very intense and often extremely conscious of all of the Many, MANY ways that I fell short of God’s expectations. I felt that I had a lot to atone for. I had not led the perfect Christian life- FAR from it – in fact.
I was a lot like the Apostle Paul, in the passage I selected for today. Paul had much to atone for. Before he met Jesus he was a pretty despicable character- persecuting and hunting down the followers of Jesus. He believed he was helping to keep things perfect. He believed in his religious ideas with such conviction and zeal that when some came along to challenge those convictions- the best way to deal with them was to arrest them and get rid of them. Not too different from what we see happening today……all over the world. But the love of Jesus changed Paul- and caused him to be more open in his heart- to consider things from a gentler perspective. I think Paul was also a bit haunted. He sometimes- in his darker moments- must have experienced guilt and shame over the things he had done prior to knowing Jesus. He knew he was forgiven. He knew Jesus loved him deeply- but like all of us- he had some scars.
When I first read that passage many, many years ago- I read it from the perspective of my own scars. I understood this passage to be about striving- about never giving up- about giving it ALL away for Jesus. The dreaded SURRENDER….That if I kept reading my Bible every day and praying very hard for everything and everyone on my list, and sacrificing my time, talent and treasure- that I would get there. That if I just surrendered ALL to Jesus, I would be left with the peace that passes all understanding- I would get to a place where I never lost my temper, and beams of light shone out from my eyes, and I never binge watched bad shows on Netflix and never got drunk, and never spent money on stupid stuff that should have instead been given away to charity, and never snapped at my husband and never swore at bad drivers in traffic…..You get the idea. If I just kept striving, as I understood Paul to be suggesting here- I would get to the mythical THERE. I would arrive at a place of perfect peace.
Today, twenty five years later…..I read this passage very differently.
I am more gentle with myself.
Twenty five years have passed since I committed myself to living for Jesus. I went to Seminary. I became a minister. I read the entire Bible from beginning to end FIVE TIMES. I am a MASTER OF DIVINITY!
And guess what?
I still swear at bad drivers in traffic. I still snap at my husband- especially if I am hungry, angry, lonely or tired. I still spend my money that could have gone to charity on stupid things. I still binge watch Netflix. I don’t get drunk anymore (by the grace of God) but I do plenty of other things that fall short of Christian perfection. Every day. I HAVE made progress. I HAVE grown. I HAVE changed for the better in many, many ways- but Christian perfection??? Not even close.
And that is why today, I understand this passage in a much gentler way.
In her helpful and enlightening book “ A Flexible Faith”, author, theologian and fellow Bethel Seminary graduate Bonnie Kristian writes:
“If you are familiar with CS Lewis’ Narnia series and particularly the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe- you know Christus Victor. Just as Aslan sacrifices his life to rescue the traitor Edmond defeats the white witch and freezes all Narnia, so Jesus sacrificed his life to rescue sinful humanity, defeated Satan and even death itself, and freed all creation to be restored to relationship with God. Christus Victor says that, like Edmond, in sinning we have both betrayed God and become victims of evil but God loved us so much so that even though we were his enemies, he willingly died to rescue us.”
The process of growing to be like Christ is called sanctification in fancy church language…..and —like the atonement—Christians over the centuries have held differing views on this topic. I have moved into the view of sanctification as progress….
“ We should see a long-term upward trend in sanctification but shouldn’t expect the path toward holiness to be uniformly positive. There will be setbacks. As even the Apostle Paul complained, “often I do not do the good I want to do but the evil I do not want to do” ( Romans.7:19). This approach cautions against expecting perfection in this life. Yes, that will come after death but for now our best hope is progress in walking with God and rejoicing in him all day long.”
Which is why I believe that Paul is reminding us- in today’s passage- that even though we need to work on getting stronger and growing more to be like Jesus…..WE NEVER WILL.
Because Jesus has already done it for us.
To me, that is the heart of the gospel. We will ALWAYS fall short- because we are human and flawed. That does NOT mean that we shouldn’t try. Of course we should try. Of course we should confess our sins and ask Jesus to help us do better. That is the striving that Paul is talking about here.
BUT in all of our striving- let us never forget that as believers WE WEAR THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF CHRIST. We wear Jesus’s goodness, perfection and love like a blanket. A blanket that protects us from fear, and shame and guilt and self doubt. We can rest in knowing that we will NOT achieve perfection in this life. That maybe, we don’t have to beat ourselves up when we fail…..That maybe, all we need to do is pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and start all over again- and that God loves us because we are trying- not because we succeed but because we love Jesus enough to try.
So if it helps you to make resolutions for 2019…..GO FOR IT.
I am making the resolution to strive towards getting out of debt- and I fully believe that God will help me to get there. Will I do it perfectly? No- not even close. Will I make mistakes? I fully believe that I will. But I will keep on keeping on- because I believe that money management is a spiritual issue and an area where I personally still need to grow to be more like Jesus. That is me.
That may not be you.
Maybe making resolutions just gives you a lot of reservations.
Maybe when you fail or make mistakes it just frustrates you and makes you feel bad about yourself.
If that is the case, then resolutions are maybe not for you.
It is not black and white.
God knows your heart. God sees your intentions. God understands your motivation.
I truly believe that.
So whether you choose resolutions or reservations in 2019- I pray that you walk with Jesus. Wherever He may lead you.
Let us pray:
Thank you, Lord Jesus. Thank you. For ALL that you have done for us–and for ALL that I know You will continue to do. You tell us in your Word to strive- but also to remember that you have already done it for us- in much more perfect a way than we could ever do for ourselves. Help us to Love. Help us to be Grateful . To praise You . To do everything as though we were doing it for you. Keep us, Lord, in your Light. Amen.