In the song “Last Light” by the band Converge, the singer, Jacob Bannon, encourages his listeners to perceiver, even when times get tough. He says,
I need you to be the strength of widows and sole survivors
I need you to be as fearless as new mothers and new fathers
I need you to be the hope of hearts who lost true love
I need you to be the might of their first kiss
I need a purpose and I need a reason
I need to know that there is trophy and meaning
To all that we lose and all we fight for
To all our loves and our wars
Keep pushing on
Keep shining on
This is for the hearts still beating
The apostle Paul writes to a Philippian church that has come so far, and yet is struggling. It’s losing heart. But he reminds them that they have hearts that are still beating. Throughout this letter Paul keeps saying in so many words, “You’ve come so far. Don’t give up now. Keep fighting. ‘Keep breathing. Keep living. Keep searching. Keep pushing on. Keep bleeding. Keep healing. Keep fading. Keep shining on.”
This life of faith is not a sprint, but a marathon. It’s full of highs and lows, steps forward followed by steps back. It’s full of bleeding and healing, fading and shining. There are times we feel Christ in our lives so strongly he’s almost tangible, and there are times we question whether there’s any truth to this thing called “Christianity” at all.
The Philippians are losing steam. Their founder and example, Paul, is in prison, there’s disunity in their church, and now new voices are telling them that there’s more (or less) to their faith than they thought.
There are two different, seemingly contradictory factions trying to influence the Philippian church. Paul addresses the first group in v. 2. saying, “Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh!” Paul seems to be referring to those who say that Christ is, essentially, not enough. It’s good that the Philippians have put their faith in Christ, but they also need to continue to follow Jewish practices, specifically circumcision.
Paul is not saying that being Jewish is bad, he’s very clear in both Romans and 1 Corinthians that he is an Israelite, but he’s saying that requiring non-Jewish Christians to follow Jewish practices is wrong. As Paul said in chapter 1, Christ has already begun his good work in the Philippians, and will see it out to completion.
To use the image I keep coming back to in this study on Philippians, their ship has already set sail into the great ocean that is life in Christ, and here there is a group of people calling them back to shore, saying they forgot something. Paul rejects this outright. They are already on their way. Don’t turn back now. “Keep pushing on.”
The other faction that is influencing the Philippians says the opposite. While the first group says they need to follow more rules, the second group says they can do whatever they want. Paul says of them in vv. 18-19, “…many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. 19 Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.” This group is more than content with cutting ties with the old way of things, but they have no final destination. They aren’t going anywhere but are being blown about by their appetites and desire instead of the will of God. Their boat, Paul says with tears in his eyes, will inevitably end up shipwrecked upon the rocky shores of self-indulgence.
Paul pleads with the Philippians as Jacob Bannon, the singer of Converge, pleads with his listeners, keep pressing on. Don’t be pulled back to your old way of life and don’t lose sight of the goal.
But the difficult thing is that it’s unclear what the final goal is. Even Paul seems to flounder a bit here. He uses some pretty abstract words and phrases. He says he wants to be “found in Christ,” and he wants to “know Christ and the power of his resurrection.” He says, kind of paradoxically, that he hasn’t attained the goal, and yet Christ Jesus has “made me his own.” Paul says, “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,” which sounds really good, but is, in the words of my father, “clear as mud.”
The easy answer as to what this final goal is would be heaven. But that’s not actually what Paul talks about here. Paul talks about resurrection, as does most of the New Testament, which is almost the opposite of common understandings of heaven. Most contemporary pictures of heaven involve us leaving earth as spirits, free from our bodies, but resurrection requires a body, albeit a transformed one, one that will be “conformed to the body of Christ’s glory,” which, once again, is not very clear.
The hardest thing about this life of faith is that, if we’re honest, it’s not always clear what we hope for. We know that we are on this boat called “Salvation,” we know that we have had some kind of experience with God, but we don’t know what the final destination is. We don’t know what it looks like, or where it is.
And we don’t like uncertainty.
Just like the Philippians, we are also often torn between two alternative ways to deal with this ambiguity.
The first is to get rid of all ambiguity, and create universal rules for everything. We all know there are churches and Christians like that. “Faith” simply means trusting in rules.
Once, I was at a restaurant in rural North Carolina, reading some theology book, and a guy at the table next to me started talking with me about how he would love to go to seminary. He said he wanted to study Scripture and really know what the Scripture meant back then, really understand the language and culture so he could know what they were really saying, as if the perfect translation of Scripture, or the perfect understanding of context, would get rid of all that ambiguity. I listened politely, and we had a good conversation, but I didn’t agree with that guy. Our world today is not the world of yesterday. I don’t want to know what Scripture said to them back then, I want to know what Scripture has to say to us today.
We need a God who is alive and active, we need a faith that is flexible enough to adapt to an ever-changing world. Maybe the ambiguity that sometimes exists in Scripture doesn’t come from our lack of understanding of what it was like “back then,” but was actually always part of the message. Hebrews tells us that faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Faith is Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness. Faith is Peter stepping out of the boat and onto the water. Faith is Mary saying to the angel Gabriel, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Faith is lifting the anchor, leaving the solid shore behind, and putting our full trust in the Holy Spirit who fills our sails and leads us toward a destination we have not seen and yet we hope for.
The second alternative for us, like the Philippians, is to revel in the ambiguity. The world has changed since the days of Jesus, and Paul, and the Philippians, so we can’t really trust anything from Scripture. We might as well live the life we want to live. “Faith” in Jesus adds a spiritual dimension to our lives, but there is nothing solid to plant our feet on, so we might as well do whatever we want.
We have all met people like this, as well. They are “Christians,” but their lives are indistinguishable from anyone else’s. Some live for the next party, other’s for a better car, a better house, a more prestigious career. Faith is a convenient add-on, but nothing more. Or worse, faith is coopted to legitimize personal agendas, as we see so many politicians doing today.
Of course, neither of these alternatives are adequate for Paul. Both lose sight of the goal, which is to know Christ and to be known by Christ. The first group never wants to leave the concrete shores of rules and regulations, the other is happy to go out to sea, but wants to steer itself, visiting the islands of personal success, and fame, and wealth.
But Paul says we must both pull the anchor and hoist the sails. The life of faith, we’ve said over and over, is characterized by movement, but it’s not our movement but the movement of the Spirit who pushes us forward toward a destination we cannot see and cannot imagine, and yet we believe is out there, beyond the horizon.
The uncertainty of what it means to be a Christian today is something we all know and face. Just the other day in Sunday school someone shared how they felt that it’s unclear how to be a Christian in our current world, it seems so complicated. Things used to seem black and white, now everything is gray.
Do we give money to the houseless person who asks for it? Or do we give to an agency that addresses systemic issues that contribute to poverty? Do we, as a church, put our time and resources into this social issue or that social issue? Are we caring enough for those inside our walls? Are we caring enough for those outside our walls? How do we vote? What do we think about war?
But the flip side of these fears is the excitement that anything is possible. People in our church are always coming up with new ideas about what we can do differently, how we can reach our community better. Our church is exploring joining the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, an organization that many of us didn’t even know existed until recently. We have a new preschool moving in that seems wonderful.
It’s tempting for Grant Park to look back at what it used to be, to try and recreate what once was, but what lies before us is not the old seashore but the vast and rolling ocean of God’s possibilities. The only One who can tell us where to go and how to get there is our captain, Jesus Christ, who became one of us, who “was born in human likeness” and was “found in human form,” so that he won’t guide us from out there, but from among us, as one of the crew.
When we first started out on this journey, we were like young sailors, who didn’t know the first thing about sailing, but the longer we’re out to sea, the more we learn from those who are experienced, and the more like our Captain we’ll become. While we might have started out reading maps, trying to follow an exact course, over time we’ll learn read to the waves and navigate by the stars. We’ll know how to turn the sail to best catch the wind. We’ll feel in our guts when to proceed slowly and carefully through treacherous water or when to fly full-speed ahead.
Being mature in our faith means reading the wind and the waves, and knowing what is required of us, while also listening to our Captain’s voice that is barely audible above the crash of the waves, calling out to us, encouraging us:
Keep pushing on
Keep shining on.