Thursday, 23 March 2017

A different kind of religion

Philippians 3.1-11

I went on a website which asks what, in a secular world, takes the place of religion today?

Among other things, people mentioned: political affiliation, health foods, fitness, motorbikes, gaming, music (specifically, the Beatles and One Direction!), social media. The big one was Sport.

But I guess our 'religion' can also be all those things in which we put our confidence, things such as status, success, hard work, money, our moral standing, education, fitness, family etc.

Paul, the writer of Philippians, was clearly immensely able. He had a brilliant mind, the equivalent of a top Oxbridge or Harvard graduate. And he had all the credentials that would have given him great status in the society in which he lived.

In Philippians 3, Paul speaks about some of the things in which he could have put his confidence:
He had been through the right rituals
He was of the very best family
His doctrine was utterly sound.
He was committed, zealous and he worked hard.
And he was morally upright. He kept the law, certainly on the surface.

But, Paul says, he was prepared to treat all of that as rubbish.
In fact, the word he uses is much stronger .. he treats those things as c**p

Why?

There are two reasons:

1. The things that secular religion offers are nothing in comparison to what God offers.

They are nothing in comparison to the relationship which God offers us.
'The surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord' (3.8)
Knowing Jesus; knowing him and his presence and guidance and comfort and strength and peace is a far greater experience than anything this world can offer. And I do hope that you have occasionally had glimpses of that.

They are nothing in comparison to the righteousness which God offers us.
'The righteousness that comes from faith' (3.9)
Righteousness is a word that covers so much in the bible. If knowing Jesus is something personal and experiential, righteousness is something that is much more objective. It is about the forgiveness that God has given us. It is about how he adopts us as his children, places us in the fellowship of the church, and gives us the Spirit. The righteousness that God gives promises us fulfilment, deep fellowship (Paul speaks of how he 'longs' to be with the Philippian Christians [1.8; 4.1]), glimpses of joy and the hope of glory.

They are nothing in comparison to the resurrection power which God offers us.
'I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection' (3.10)
This is ultimate power. It is bigger than death.
And we see glimpses of this power when the life of God breaks into death situations.
- when a person becomes a Christian; when a sinner who is cut off from God turns to God and repents. I was recently visiting a church which has a very special ministry to people who are homeless, many of whom have drug and alcohol dependency issues. In the period of 5 years, they have seen 60 baptisms. People meet Christ, discover a love for him and his word, and find strength in their struggle to become free. That is the resurrection power of God.
- when we see the supernatural power of God. I think of a couple of recent miraculous healings in our own church; of our retreat a couple of years ago when a person who struggled to see was suddenly, for a short while, able to see completely clearly.
And this is the power which will, when we die, bring life to our physically dead bodies.

2. Paul treats these things as garbage, because the things that secular religion offer take us away from God. 

We end up living for them, putting our trust in them, and not living for God and putting our trust in him. We live for false gods and we put our trust in our status, morality, our hard work, our religious rituals.

If we are to receive the love of God, we need to be prepared to give up our false gods and our false ways. We need to die to them. That is why Paul calls us to become like Jesus in his death.

In v10, Paul speaks about 'the fellowship of sharing in his [Christ's] sufferings'.
He is not saying that we are put right with God by virtue of what we suffer.
That would simply be substituting justification by suffering for justification by works.
Rather, he is saying that we know the sharing of his suffering when we become like him in his death.
Jesus has already suffered, His suffering is sufficient for us.
But we share in that suffering when we are prepared to die to ourselves, to our false gods and to throw ourselves completely on his love for us and on what he has done for us.

When we are dead, there is nothing that we can live for and nothing that we can depend on.
When we are dead, those things that we depend on for our glory become meaningless: sport, music, gaming, politics, motorbikes, career, family.
When we are dead our achievements and identity and successes and failures mean nothing.
And when we are dead, all we can do is depend on the mercy and power of God to bring us back to life.

Baptism is a symbol of this death and resurrection.
As I went under the water, or as I was washed with the water of baptism, so I was united to Jesus in his death. I died to myself. I died to the things that I have treated as gods; I died to my ambitions, successes and failures, status and identity. I died to my religious efforts. I shared in the sufferings of Christ by becoming like him in his death.
But as I come up out of the water, I come up alive, as a new person, with the risen Christ.

It is important that you have been baptised. Jesus commands it.
But it does not matter when you were baptised or how you were baptised (that would again be putting our trust in rituals).
What does matter is that we are living that baptism now; that we are living as people who are learning daily, each moment of our lives, what it means to die to ourselves, to put our trust in Jesus and to be brought alive again by the power of God.

That is why Paul is so angry with people who are trying to persuade those who have put their trust in Jesus to go back to putting their trust in religious rituals.
It is why he is prepared and able to treat the things that he had lived for and all the things that he had depended on as rubbish.

He knows that this world has nothing in comparison to the relationship, righteousness and resurrection power that God can offer us.
And he knows that it is only by dying to ourselves that we will discover both real life here and now, and life then, in the final resurrection of the dead.

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