“Faith Presses On”

Philippians 3:4b-16

August 17, 2003

 

          Paul calls them his most beloved, and his joy and crown.  They were the first Christian converts in Europe, a group of Romanized citizens who came to believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ.  It must have been hard to be a new church when the gospel was in its infancy.  They had no church history to fall back upon, no form of government to follow, no prescribed ways of being a church, and possibly only one written confession. 

Yet, the church in Philippi was a church, a group of people who believed in the gospel, a group of people who in the midst of persecutions and dangers still came together to worship and do ministry.  In spite of all that they had to endure, they continued to persevere thanks to their relationship with Paul, and ultimately their relationship with Jesus Christ.  For the church in Philippi, Paul was more to them than just a theologian or an expert apologist; he was their pastor, their companion in ministry, and a brother in the Lord.

          As difficult and challenging as it was for the church in Philippi to remain a church, it was as equally difficult for Paul in his own ministry.  In fact, when he writes his letter to the Philippians, he is in prison probably in Ephesus.  How hard it must have been for him to be locked away behind stone and steel unable to be with his beloved in Philippi knowing what they were having to go through and deal with without him, for they were facing many problems, which he experienced first hand. 

          During his missionary work and establishment of the church in Philippi, Paul also experienced the conflict and persecution that the Philippians were going through.  During his time there, he was shamelessly mistreated.  In one account, Paul was seized and dragged in the marketplace, accused of crimes, publicly beaten with rods, and thrown in prison with his feet fastened to stocks. 

Paul knew from first hand experience how difficult it was to be a Christian in the first century, but Paul knew something else, something else that kept him going through all his trials and tribulations, something else that gave him the strength and the will to continue to press on, and that was the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus, the power of his resurrection, and the sufferings of his death.  For Paul, his eyes were always set upon the final outcome, the end of the time, the goal and heavenly prize that awaited him when the last trumpet sounded: his own resurrection from the dead.

          It truly is foreign to our 21st century ears to hear about the conflicts and persecutions that faced the 1st century church.  After all, we live in a country that was founded on religious freedom and biblical principles.  We live in a country where at any time we want to, we can go to a Christian bookstore and buy all the Bibles we want, crosses to hang around our neck, and “What Would Jesus Do” t-shirts and wristbands.  After all, we live in a country where a great majority of people professes to be Christian. 

          Yet, we also live in a country where church attendance is decreasing, where Biblical literacy rates are falling faster than reading literacy rates, and where at best for some people church membership has about as much value as being a member of any civic organization, or at worst, as much value as being a card-caring member of the local video store.

          How easy it is for us to get caught up in the Americanized gospel, an Americanized gospel, which teaches that faith is something that is private and personal, a commodity which can be used or not used as one sees fit, but only when it is appropriate, only when it doesn’t offend.  An Americanized gospel, which teaches that faith is a noun and not a verb, that it’s only a belief and not also an action.

          But, for Paul, faith is so much more.  For Paul, faith is not badge of honor to be worn on a sleeve, or another bullet point on his resume of religious achievements, faith is the divine gift which calls us the church, whether in Philippi in the 1st century or Stuarts Draft in the 21st century, to press on, to keep going, and to not quit. 

Faith is always a work in progress, a continuous activity, an on-going journey toward a goal, a goal that is only attained at the end of time, a time far beyond what our eyes can see in the here and now.  But it’s there, waiting to be finally and fully fulfilled.

          That’s why Paul believed that faith should always press on, because the goal of faith is always a life-long pursuit, a life-long commitment.  Paul never believed that he knew all there was to know about Jesus; he never took his faith for granted, because he knew just how precious the goal was. 

Like a marathon runner, Paul knows that faith is for the long haul, not a sprint to the line.  It’s a long run, it’s a tiring run, it has frustrations and setbacks, but the goal is to always be in front us, and our hearts and minds are to always be set upon that goal, we should want it bad enough that we dream about, taste it, live it, and breath it.

          Have you ever watched a marathon, and seen the crowd of people lining the streets cheering as the runners run by?  Who are they cheering for?  Are they only cheering for the leader, for the ones in front of the pack?  No, they are cheering everyone.  They cheer for not only the ones leading the race, but for those in the middle of the pack, and even for those who are dead last.  In fact, the cheering is the loudest not for the professional runners, but for those whose only goal is to just finish the race, whose only goal it is to do something they never thought they could do.  It is these people who get the loudest cheers, because of their extra-ordinary commitment emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and physically to finish what they had started. 

We too are cheered on in our great race faith.  We are cheered on by the countless faces that have graced the pages of history from the very beginning, the countless faces that line the streets cheering us on as we pass by on the way to the finish line that is the treasure of heaven.  We are supported by the cheering voices of the saints who even now call upon the Lord to give us strength for the long run.  But even more importantly than all these people, we are also supported and encouraged by God.

          There is a great story about the famous Polish composer and pianist, Ignace Paderewski.  On one occasion Paderewski was scheduled to perform in America for a very high-society extravaganza.  In the audience was a mother with her fidgety nine-year-old son.  Weary of waiting, the boy slipped away from her side, walked up the stairs to the piano on the stage, and started playing “chopsticks.”  The rumbling noise of the crowd soon turned to shouts as hundreds began yelling, “Get that boy away from there!” 

          Paderewski heard the commotion back stage, and he grabbed his coat and rushed over behind the boy.  Reaching around him from behind, the master began to play a countermelody to “chopsticks.”  As the two of them played together, Paderewski kept whispering in the boy’s ear, “Keep going.  Don’t quit, child…don’t stop, don’t stop.”

          Brothers and sisters, we too are supported by our Master and Lord, by the one who gives us the strength and the courage to continue, the one who also whispers in our ear, “Keep going.  Don’t quit, child…don’t stop, don’t stop.”  Rejoice in the knowledge that together with God, we too can produce wonderful music on the way to prize that waits us all, and with a faith that presses on.  Amen.