What do you value most in your life?
A recently personality test that I took asked me to fill in “5 things that I can’t live without”. The respondents often write snarky things like oxygen or water, or honest things like their cell phone or coffee, or serious things like friends or family.
If that question were posed to you, what would you answer? What would be the things you can’t live without?
This answer naturally changes as we change throughout our lives. What I valued as a 15-year-old was not the same as at 25, which is not the same as what I value now.
And if you had asked the Apostle Paul that question a few decades before he wrote this letter to the Philippians, he would have been able to give five things he valued, no problem
- He is circumcised
- He is of the tribe of Benjamin, a favoured tribe of the Hebrew people
- He is a Pharisee
- He zealously and devotedly eradicates those who worship what he would have called “false gods” (i.e. the Christian sect)
- He is a keeper of God’s laws like no other
Paul prided himself on each of these things, some which he was born to, and some which he earned. He was known and respected among Pharisees and other Jews as a Jew par excellence. His reputation mattered, and he had carefully worked at it, studying under the right people (a well-known scholar named Gamaliel) and making the right moves.
But in one fell swoop on a sunny day as he was on the way to Damascus, all of that changed. Paul met Jesus. After that moment, his priorities would never be the same.
Jesus once told a parable of a man who found a pearl of great price and sold everything he had to possess that pearl. For Paul, Jesus was that pearl of great price. Paul had been introduced to Jesus, and all the things that had seemed so meaningful, that he had taken such pride in, just moments before suddenly seemed to him like garbage in comparison.
From that moment on his whole life was shaped around this relationship with Christ – “the surpassing value of knowing Christ” as he calls it.
Paul was writing this to the Christian Philippian community, and his message is for us too – his personal testimony of knowing Christ, the pearl beyond great price, that is at the same time a plea for others to seek to know him too.
But what did knowing Christ mean for Paul, and what does it mean for us?
Here’s what Paul does not mean by “knowing Christ”.
- It’s not an inherited faith. Paul had relied on “being a child of Abraham” his whole life, and he suddenly realised that it was no substitute for this relationship with Jesus. We sometimes rely on our connections and relationships with other people who know God – our parents’ faith, or our grandparents’. But even being the child of a priest is no kind of substitute for your own relationship with Christ.
- It’s not just attending church or being a good person. Paul was a Pharisee, which means that he was the best at obeying the “rules of the faith” – attending the synagogue, saying the prayers, keeping all the law and the commandments. Nothing wrong with that!! Yet even these good things he tosses out and calls “rubbish” (the word actually means dung) in comparison with knowing Jesus personally.
So then what does it mean to know Jesus personally?
It means we are on speaking terms with him, and even sometimes arguing terms! We spend time communicating with him in prayer, talking to him about the easy, the hard, and the mundane. No detail is too small to bring to Christ, no burden too large.
We spend time with him, in his house, with his family. This includes both time spent with his body on earth, the church, where we encourage each other and learn how to follow him more nearly and love him more dearly. And it also includes spending time with the least and the lost. Jesus says, “When you did this to the least of these, you did it to Me.” If you are looking for Jesus, you will find him the same place that they always found him when he was here on earth: with tax collectors and sinners, with those who are marginalised and homeless.
As we spend more time with him we begin to recognise him – his character, his features, his voice. Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”
My friend Joanna works in Parkdale as a pastor to marginalised and street-involved people. Last week she passed by a friend panhandling on the street, and she asked him how he was doing. Turns out he had been physically attacked and injured, and was really struggling. He cried out, “Where is God?” In that moment, my friend was so struck by such a strong resemblance between this man and Christ asking the same question on the cross. She recognised Christ there, on the street, in that man in the midst of his suffering.
As we get to know Christ better and recognize him in others, we begin to recognise his actions in the world and in our lives. Things that used to look like coincidences begin to have an unmistakably divine fingerprint, and pretty soon we are seeing Christ’s fingerprints all over the place – all over creation, and in our circumstances, and in the people around us. The circumstances of how I found my apartment, and the blessing that it has been to me and to others since then, have God’s fingerprints all over them.
As we get to know Christ, we discover his resurrection power at work in our lives, transforming us into his likeness as we grow into our new life. We find new strength to resist temptation. We find the fruits of the Spirit growing in us. And we experience a joy and a security that goes beyond any earthly explanation, as the truth of how much Christ loves us begins to sink in.
But there’s one more way that we are called to know Christ, Paul says, and that’s in his suffering.
“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.”
Paul is writing all this after a long, hard life. He has lost his reputation and the many things he worked so hard for before he met Jesus. Since then he has endured all kinds of trials both physical and emotional. As he writes this letter, he sits in a jail in Rome, likely facing his death because of his faith in Christ.
And so Paul knows better than most what the cost is of knowing Jesus – a cost that Jesus himself warns us of when he says “Take up your cross, deny yourself, and follow me.” Paul knows that following Jesus means following him right to the foot of the cross and sharing in his sufferings. It is there, Paul knows, that we begin to know Christ best as we see how deep his love goes. And so despite having experienced such hardship in following Christ, Paul is determined to press on – he tries to get as close as he can to Jesus, knowing that any sufferings are worth the cost and more, to experience sharing in Christ’s resurrection glory.
I can’t close this sermon without saying something about Mary. Beloved Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Mary who defied tradition to sit and learn at Jesus’ feet, who wept when her brother died, and rejoiced when he was raised. Mary who, with trembling hands and a love-filled heart, went out and bought the perfume that cost so much. Mary who could feel the political tension rising and the religious unease in the air because of Jesus’ raising of her brother Lazarus. Mary who, in deep wisdom or instinct or foreboding risked shame and embarrassment to break open the bottle and pour it on Jesus’ feet.
Mary knew something about what it means to know Jesus: to know him in his power, and to know him in his suffering. And in her love Mary counted everything else as loss – reputation, riches, even what her family thought of her. All she cared about was being near to him whom she loved so well.
Mary is, for us, the true-story parable of what Paul is talking about.
And Mary is a challenge to us: individually, to seek to know Christ with the all-consuming passion that Paul speaks of; and to us as a church body, to examine what we hold dear. Do we as the people of St Mary and St Martha seek to gain a reputation as those who follow Christ so nearly that we don’t care about reputation, about how much money we have, or how well thought of we are? Are we searching out where we can find and serve Christ in our neighbourhood, in the least and the lost? Are we seeking to be a community that knows Christ, the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings?
There’s a quote that I read long ago by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, that I’ve needed to come back to time and again, and it is this:
“There is only one status that our Lord bids us be concerned with, and that is the status of proximity to himself.”
As we head towards Easter, I want to challenge you and invite you to follow Christ into his passion. Walk the slow journey with him from Palm Sunday to Maundy Thursday to Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Join him on this sacred journey of his passion, to know him better, and to love him better. Keep vigil in the darkness as we wait for the news that is life. And then let the unbelievable, awe-inspiring good news of the resurrection sink into hearts so near to his that his resurrection is ours as well.
Friends, there is one thing I can guarantee you, and that is that like Paul, and like Mary, the journey of seeking to be as close as possible to Christ is one that you will never regret.
“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this 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 heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”