What are we striving for?
A sermon on Philippians 3:4b - 14 & John 12:1-8 by Nathan Nettleton, 2 April 1995
Our goal is intimate union with Christ, and everything else in our lives as Christians will arise from that.
The main failure of the protestant movement has been that it has frequently failed to be protestant. The basic protestant principle is the principle of constant questioning and critique. It says that we need to keep on questioning what we are doing, why we are doing it, and how we are doing it, because if we stop asking those questions we lose the plot and become meaningless and irrelevant.
As a church we are asking many of those questions at the present time, but we need to make sure we don't stop asking them at the end of this particular process, and we need to make sure we ask them of ourselves individually as well as communally.
As people who identify ourselves as Christians, what is it we are seeking to achieve? The apostle Paul describes himself as pressing on towards the goal. Well, what is the goal? We have described our approach to faith here as a search, and I'm very comfortable with that, but searching is usually futile unless we have some idea of what we are seeking. So this morning, as we approach God in worship, we will pursue an answer to that question. What is our central goal? For what do we strive?
I'm not going to attempt to unpack and explain all the complexities of our Bible readings today. Nor do I intend to ignore them. But what I hope we can do is use them as source material for seeking to answer our question; what is our central goal? What do we strive for?
The question is pretty close to the concerns of both our readings. Paul speaks of giving up one set of values in order to pursue the most important thing, and the image of pressing on towards the goal and striving to attain it come directly from his words which we heard read. In the gospel reading, Judas questions Mary's action, suggesting that it is not part of the game plan, and Jesus defends her. The nature of the game plan is therefore at question. What are we seeking to accomplish?
We are going to explore a few options here. Let's start with the proposal the Judas puts forward in the gospel reading. We'll ignore the suggestion that John makes that Judas was in fact a thief and was speaking from self interest. Jesus doesn't address that, so we'll leave it too.
Mary has produced an extremely expensive fragrant oil. It may be a bit of poetic license but John tells us it was worth about a year's wages. She has used this jar of liquid treasure to give Jesus a foot massage, and Judas is not happy. His proposal is that it should have been sold and the proceeds used for the relief of poverty. His stated view then is simple: what we are on about here is overcoming poverty, bringing economic good news to the poor.
Many churches have taken this line. A lot of people perceive me as an advocate of that view. It has a lot going for it. The argument is that God wants the world to be a place that reflects the goodness and justice of God. Therefore our task as followers of God is to work for social transformation. We can do this a number of ways. We can get involved directly in politics and work to change the structures. We can work with lobby groups, like Amnesty International or Habitat for Humanity. We can work with aid agencies, like Tear Fund or World Vision. We can work in social welfare. The church has often been the major provider of social welfare, through agencies like the Brotherhood of St Lawrence and the Prahran Mission.
Now Judas had a good point here. All of these things are good things, and if you or I were to give a year's wages to them, we would have made a most worthwhile contribution. But Jesus did not accept Judas' assertion that social action among the poor was the main focus of Christian mission. So why not? What do you see as the problems for a church if social action becomes its primary focus?? Or for an individual. If you focus your energies on transforming society, what are the dangers for you?? I'll be Judas for a moment, and you try to persuade me, not of what is the right focus, but of what's wrong with this one.
( Burned out, depressed, discouraged, cynical.
Professionalized, losing the human touch.
Impossible - society will only change with a change of heart.
Human need is greater than just the material wellbeing.
Action can promote a works mentality, relying on or own achievement for salvation.)
O.K let's try another angle, another focus. Paul describes his past as a religious perfectionist. He had it all right. He was clearly identified with the right people, he lived blamelessly according to all the ritual and moral laws, and he was so zealous that he sought to destroy those who opposed this religious lifestyle. There are many churches and Christians who see this as the correct focus for Christian faith. Moral purity. Zealous promotion of godliness, and fanatical opposition to those who hold dissenting views. Diligent study of the scriptures so as to be sure we have identified God's moral requirements and can follow them to the letter. America's Moral Majority and Australia's Festival of Light come to mind.
But Paul says he had to reject all this. In fact if you want a more accurate translation than any of the English translations are willing to give, he says he now considers it all crap compared to the main goal. So why? I'll be the old Paul, or Fred Nile for a moment! Persuade me about what is wrong with this as the main focus.
O.K. We'll try again. Another focus. Twelve years ago I was involved with a Christian group, who shall remain nameless, whose almost exclusive focus was evangelism. We all had quotas. We were expected to share the gospel with a certain number of people every week in order to get them to become Christians. Our favourite book was called the Master Plan for Evangelism and it explained how we would convert the whole world by the end of the century, which is looking particularly shaky now. If we are convinced that the gospel really is good news for all people, then this is a worthy enough goal. Get out there and let them know. How can they believe if they have not heard?
This one is not really addressed in our passages today, but you could find lots of other bits of Paul's writings to support it, and probably some to critique it. But have a go. I'll be the author of that book. Persuade me why this cannot be the main focus.
O.K. One more try. Perhaps the focus is spirituality. We need to concentrate on prayer and meditation, on worship and contemplation. There has been a long tradition of making this the focus in the churches. It is perhaps most clearly demonstrated in the monastic movements. Withdrawal from the distractions and preoccupations of the world in order to focus our minds on God and experience the cleansing presence of the Holy Spirit. Disciplines of silence, fasting, simplicity, and prayer. There can be absolutely no doubt that these disciplines have produced some of the most world changing Christians in history. But is personal spirituality and piety the principle focus?
It could be argued that that is what we see in Mary's act of devotion with the fragrant oil. A ritual act of devotion that integrates the spiritual, the devotional, the physical, the aesthetic, even the sensual/erotic. I have no doubt at all that our spirituality and worship should more fully capture and integrate all those aspects. But is this the primary focus of Christian faith?? What are the dangers, what happens if we focus too far in that direction???
It is fairly clear from these readings that Paul thought that it didn't matter how well you did any of these things, because doing things is not the primary focus of Christian life. You can be as active on behalf of the poor as Mother Theresa; you can be as morally righteous as Fred Nile; you can be as zealously evangelistic as Billy Graham; you can be as pious and spiritually minded as St Francis, but it won't get you anywhere on its own, because God does not accept you on the basis of what you do. Paul said that all these things were irrelevant in comparrison to the value of knowing Christ and being united to Christ.
And before you jump from your seats to say, But that is what all those things were about!, let me say that you are right, they are about that, but they cannot be a substitute for it, and that is how they can be used. Paul makes it clear that it is because we first become intimately united with Christ that we do the things that Christ does. That is why when we wrote our mission statement, it didn't begin with we seek to serve the world, it began with we seek God, and then recognized that as we discover God, God will lead us into sharing Christ's mission in the world.
It is as we connect with Christ, as our spirits are united with the Spirit of Christ, that we will be transformed and filled with the sort of joyous exuberant life that can transform the world into a more just, righteous and spiritual place. Without that intimate union all those quests usually gradually degenerate into chores that weigh us down and make us slaves. We might be able to sustain the commitment to them for our entire lives, and plenty of people do, but unless we have something that sustains and empowers us, it can become a stale and joyless commitment. Paul's experience, and my experience, and the experience of many of us here, is that it is in our union with Christ that we find that constantly refreshing energy. And that empowered by that intimate union we are lead into the mission of transforming ourselves, our communities and our world.
And so it is for intimate union with Christ that we strive. It is to that goal that we press on, and to that goal that Jesus invites us to turn aside from the many good tasks occasionally, so that we might be a bit extravagent with our time and affections and ensure that we are developing that primary union. The poor will always be with you, the tasks of changing the world will not go away, but Jesus endorses your right to pull out from time to time to seek intimacy with God, to worship and to be refreshed and renewed before you return to the workface. And so that is what we do here at this table. We could share this together a million times and it would have no impact on the world out there, but if we approach it as a time of intimacy with Christ, and we allow it to refresh us and empower us, then Christ will lead us from this place into the world where we will have and impact and the world will know that the God of love is living still.