Sunday, 28 February 2010

“Stand Firm – Keep Going”

It’s all in the watching. Well, actually there’s more to it than that, but unless you’re watching really carefully then you’re lost. No, unless we are all watching really carefully then we’re all lost.

We’re watching each other, of course, but mainly we’re all watching the one in front. While he waits, we wait. When he moves, we move. When he runs, we run. When he jumps, we jump. Then we all stop. We sit together. And that’s the exciting bit, of course. When we stick together, when we’ve run and jumped and sat together – that’s when we know we can get there, together.

It’s the running that people think about. Accelerating from a standing start, sprinting for all you’re worth. You could get lost in that feeling. But run for all you’re worth and unless you’re watching, really watching, then however fast you are you’re going to get left behind. Because the fastest you can ever hope to run on your own is about twenty miles per hour, and we need to do a hundred.

Have you been watching any of the Winter Olympics? There’s something about the four man bobsleigh race that I find really gripping. Maybe that’s partly because one of our favourite family films is Cool Runnings, about how Jamaica came to field its first bobsleigh team for the Winter Olympics twenty-odd years ago. And it’s definitely also because the moments when it all goes wrong at the start – when one of the team isn’t watching the driver and misses the moment to get into the sled – can be pretty funny!

But when they get it right, it’s impressive stuff. They wait together, watching the driver. They run with him, they watch for the moment he jumps and they follow. And they tuck in for an incredible journey, noses inches from the ice as they hurtle down the run faster than motorway speeds in a metal tube only just big enough for them all to squeeze in.

Now, Biblical scholarship will never be complete this side of eternity, but I’m about as sure as I can be that the apostle Paul wasn’t thinking about bobsleighs when he wrote to the church at Philippi. However, it’s not a bad sport to have in mind when we try and understand what he was saying to them nearly 2,000 years ago, and what this may mean for us today.

This passage could be pretty confusing. If you have a Bible to hand, let’s look at a few verses to see why.

A little before our reading, in chapter 3 verse 8 Paul speaks of how he has been willing to give up everything to gain Christ. In verses 12-14 he presents this as a kind of race – he’s pressing for the finishing line, and not there yet. And in verse 16 – the verse just before our reading – he asks that he and his readers might at least “live up to what [they] have already attained.” And to that end, (I’m summarising the reading very briefly here), he encourages the Philippians to look for Christian role models and follow them, to beware of people he calls “enemies of the cross of Christ,” and that as they wait for this same Lord Jesus Christ to return as saviour and transform them to be like him, they must stand firm.

And I have to say, this seems a crazy kind of race. Hello, Paul, are we meant to be standing firm or racing for the finishing line? Are we meant to fix our eyes on Christ or on you and on each other?

Well, as I said, I doubt that the apostle Paul was thinking about the four-man bobsleigh. That seems geographically and historically unlikely, to say the least. But maybe it will help us.

There are three things about that sport that could give us a way in to this standing race of Paul’s: how we can keep our eyes on the finishing line, how to race without running, and the challenge of standing firm.

So first, how can we keep our eyes on the finishing line, if the goal and end is Christ?

We Christians have a terrible habit of speaking in shorthand. Sometimes we can say things that sound very proper, or very pious, or very profound – not realising that the shorthand we use can confuse people who need to hear us speak clearly, or discourage people whose urgent need is for reassurance.

Here’s an example, “keep your eyes on Jesus.”

I think I know what that’s meant to mean. I don’t think it’s a wrong thing to say. And I’m pretty sure I’ve said it myself. But it is shorthand and it can be confusing.

At the most basic level, it’s impossible! If I want to keep my eyes literally fixed on Jesus, I’m going to have to do without him in person. I’ll need to make do with… what? A picture, perhaps. Jesus, looking slightly ethereal but also powerful, probably with a very western European face, a neat beard and a lovely clean dressing robe. That Jesus always seems so reassuring, but he’s not real. He’s not even realistic. And if I saw someone looking just like that heading straight for me in the Grand Arcade I think I’d duck into John Lewis.

And the Philippians had a similar problem. Culturally, Philippi was worlds away from Jerusalem. It was a Roman colony, fiercely loyal to the emperor. If you want to look at a Lord and Saviour, you look at the nearest statue of the emperor. And you have good reason to do so. Because the emperor is clearly your Lord and master, and as everyone in Philippi knows, he also represents salvation. You see, the city was given to disbanded troops by an emperor who had defeated them in battle in a time of civil war in the Roman Empire. There was every reason for them to expect death – but they found they were given a new life. The victorious Lord they had betrayed chose to trust them, to forgive and restore them.

And so, just imagine how it felt to be one of those people coming to faith in Christ. They already knew a story of salvation and new life. Perhaps that helped them to understand the Gospel. But the good news of Jesus Christ is a topsy-turvy kind of story. He’s a Lord – but he was executed in the Roman way – that is, in the deliberately barbaric way the Romans executed people who weren’t Roman citizens. Though he has already come, in verse 17 we are reminded that we do not see him but we do eagerly await him. And he’s a Saviour, but the daily experience of this salvation may have seemed like its opposite: from fitting in with society to standing out from it; being treated with suspicion; risking hardship by turning away from the cult of the Emperor. 

“Keep your eyes on Jesus” sounds very good, but how? Jesus is the goal, the end of the race. But you can’t actually see him from here.

If you’re in a bobsleigh team you have the same problem. You can’t see the finishing line, but you can see the driver. And you watch him – closely. When he runs, you run. When he jumps, you jump. That’s how you reach the end of the run - together.

And that’s Paul’s practical suggestion of verse 17: “follow my example and keep your eyes on those who live as we do.”

It would be very easy to misunderstand this. In fact, there are many people today – and there were many people at the time – representing Paul as the one who hides or even distorts Jesus, his life and his teaching. Isn’t this a prime example? “Look at me,” says Paul, “Copy me. Don’t worry about Jesus: to follow him you just have to follow me.” But no, you really can’t argue that from this letter. Firstly, Paul is encouraging the church at Philippi to study the whole Christian community, not just himself – and he spells out that he is on his way just as they are, he hasn’t already reached his goal. And secondly, Paul  keeps on stressing that Christ, Christ alone is the centre of the Christian faith, and that if our eyes become clouded we should fill them with the cross of Christ.

Not every Christian leader is reliable. And we don’t always find our brothers and sisters in the church the easiest people to be with, to work with, to worship with. So it’s hardly surprising if our constant temptation is to break away, believing that we will follow Christ better alone, or in a different community, or under different leadership.

Let’s be careful. The strongest runner must be in the bobsleigh to have any chance of finishing the race. It is together, as one team, as a body, that we have been selected. And our joy will be in running and completing the race together for the finishing line.

Now for my second question, how can we race without running?

Stephen gave this talk the theme, “Stand Firm – Keep Going.” And there’s the same puzzle. We can stand firm, or we can keep going. How on earth can we do both? How can we race without running?

Paul is encouraging to the church at Philippi to see their Christian life as moving and active, dynamic, having a direction. It also has an end – but the end is not yet.

At the same time he is warning the church to beware of changing direction. He is warning that there are many who “live as enemies of the cross of Christ.” And from the context, he’s clearly not warning them about people who don’t believe or present themselves as believers. He’s warning about people who are in – who may even be at the heart of – the church. And he has some very strong words to say: they are ruled by their appetite, they make a virtue of their vices, they want a faith that evades the embarrassment of Jesus crucified and they are headed for destruction.

They probably started well, but they have gone off-course. And by compromising the heart of the Christian faith, they have found their lives have improved. Perhaps they are now seen as intellectually respectable. Perhaps doors to success have started to open. Perhaps they have simply found an easier life: their route-plan to salvation takes the ring-road around Calvary. These people haven’t stopped, they’re speeding up. In fact, they look like life’s big winners. They seem to have found a balance between body, mind and spirit.

But they are running out of control. They’re on the course, hurtling down the ice at breakneck speed, because they’ve taken the brakes off, they’re letting the bobsleigh steer itself. They may well break the course speed record, moments before they career off the track.

In bobsleigh racing, there’s a time to run and a time to sit. Sitting isn’t sleeping. Being part of the team, contributing weight to stabilise the bob, watching in case of problems ahead and being ready to call out – this part of the race isn’t about physical fitness.

It’s so easy to write off those of our brothers and sisters who aren’t visible, who aren’t up front, who aren’t starting new things, who don’t have the time, the energy, the health and strength to do all the things we may want to see happening in our churches.

Let’s be ready to see one another with new eyes, to see as Christ sees. Those who have run more of the course than we have ourselves are no less important. Faithful prayer, a watching eye, an encouraging word, a word of caution – these are indispensable. Those who run and those who are no longer able to run are pressing forward together to the goal.

Finally, then, I would like to conclude with just a thought about the challenge of standing firm.

I wonder if, this winter, you have had any run-ins with the snow and ice? You’re very fortunate if you have made it through the season with no bumps or bruises – and not everyone has been as lucky.

So think for a moment of those runners on the bobsleigh course. They’re running on ice.

Think of the moment before they start – and remember what it feels like when you’re standing, barely holding your balance, on a sheet of ice. Imagine if you started to run. How long before you would land with a bump?

If you want to compete in the bobsleigh, you need very special shoes. They have loads of tiny, sharp spikes – enough to get a good grip, not enough to get caught. And wearing them, you can stand firm, ready to run when you need to, and even to jump when the driver jumps.

In another of his letters [Ephesians 6], Paul talks about the need to have our “feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.”

We live in a world that moves fast: we stand on icy ground. It’s tempting to anchor ourselves – to dig through the ice and find rock beneath our feet. But that’s not the Christian calling. We can find comfort by protecting our culture, by looking to preserve everything as it was. The world is changing, and we protect ourselves in a kind of Christian bubble.

But that’s not the Christian calling. We have not been called from the world. We have been called in the world, we have been called to the world, and we have been called for the world. We haven’t been given a snow-plough, we have been given Gospel shoes. If we put them on – and only if we put them on – we will be ready to stand. And as we stand firm, we will be ready for our race: watching, ready to move, ready for the race ahead, ready to bring others too into this team, where they and we will be captained by Jesus Christ and received by him with joy at the end of our course.

Preached at St Martin’s Church, Cambridge and then at St Thomas’s Hall, Cambridge, 28 February, 2010