Download audio of this sermon
Show and Tell
Here is a picture of greyhounds chasing a lure. They’re trained to focus on one thing and go without looking at or thinking about anything else. My cross-country coach called it “running scared.” He said, don’t look behind you to see if someone’s about to pass you, but imagine they already are. Jesus talked about the faithful life as keeping your sights set on the goal of God’s kingdom. So did Paul in this next passage…
Paul had lots to be proud of, but he didn’t look at the great stuff of his, he looked at the gift of being God’s child; and that’s the best thing for us all.
With that single-minded talk, I’ve been pondering today about how to love Jesus without turning into a religious nutjob.
For example, in a case that was reported this week, a Tennessee judge ruled (without being asked) that a set of parents couldn’t name their child “Messiah.” Her rationale was that only one person in history has earned that title, and it’s Jesus Christ. Let’s never mind the biblical problems here – multiple Old Testament figures are described as God’s “anointed,” and the New Testament repeatedly reminds us that Jesus’ anointing is because he’s God’s begotten Son (not a status he earned as a human). And I’m only a little bit worried about the constitutional problem here, because this decision could have been based on freedom of religion – arguably in line with other legal restrictions on names – but instead she based it on Christian doctrine, on a narrow interpretation of how to honor Jesus’ name. But that strikes me as most theologically problematic, that she had to defend Christianity as if it were at risk here.
Paul used to be like that, a defender of Judaism (in one particular interpretation of the Law). He was a great debater who could argue with other schools of Jewish thought – including the emerging Christian school – because they’re wrong and he’s right. And if an argument didn’t work (which it didn’t seem to against the Christians), he could turn to force. Presumably he was not a particularly violent guy, but he thought his principles were at stake as this new community challenged deep ideas in Pharisaic thought. In fact, Paul sometimes still argues, because he’s often used to defend traditional Christianity from new ideas.
But in today’s passage, that same Paul recounts being transformed from absolutism by an experience (many, actually) of expansive grace. At that point, Paul stopped looking back. He threw away everything for the sake of Christ. But his past was great! As Jews could be measured, he was a winner. And, just to remind us, he wasn’t even internally conflicted about this persecution. He was genuinely trying to preserve his religious integrity and ensure the safety of his own people. Then God opened him to something better, to grace offered to all people (Jew and Gentile), to freedom from judgment, to the hope of new life.
So he was no longer running scared, he was running hopeful. He was singly focused on the prize, not because anything else is a failure, but because anything else is just a step along the way. Paul still grappled with anger, self-righteousness, and legalism – so do I – but he knew he wasn’t there yet. One gift of our Presbyterian tradition is the awareness that even our best work misses the mark, that our effort doesn’t get us all the way, because our destination is Christ’s new life.
The difference is in the awareness that we’re not there yet. Like Paul, we “keep striving” for Christ’s life. When we’re self-righteous or narrow-minded, it’s usually a sign that we think we’re already there, that life is all lined up and there’s no room for something new. Then our singular focus tends to generate fear, because nothing else fits our ideas; we defend ourselves against names and often fail to be changed at the core of life. We’re not invited into new life so we can fear the old but so we can expect grace.
When we run hopeful, Christ’s life becomes reflected in us. It orients us to something beyond ourselves, to a vision of God’s love in the world. It opens us to what may happen along the way, as we ask, where’s God in this? This way of being can still leave us lost and mired in the powers of death, but Christ has been there too, and he’s our promise that we’ll be lifted up again. Christ’s love continues to open ahead of us, to transform our imaginations, to turn us from fear and defensiveness to generosity and truth.
So we’re empowered to step up in faith, to take on the possibilities of hope. We do that in small ways like choosing to replace the carpet upstairs. In bigger ways like sharing our space and our energy with people on the edges of our community. In truly transformative ways, by sharing in relationship with people unlike ourselves. As we venture into a future we don’t know, may Christ’s new life appear within us, now and always.