Letting Go of Self and Finding Life

Letting Go of Self and Finding Life

October 25, 2020 • Rob Fuquay

Well, we’ve been one week in Philippi. Are you having a nice time? We arrived last week and learned a few things about the city like: how close it is to the Aegean Sea in northern Greece; how it’s located along the Via Egnatia; and how Paul was put in jail when he was there—this is a picture of the jail. Well, today our tour takes us on about a ten minute walk outside the city walls, around the hill where the acropolis is built on top, to the theater. Its built in the side of the mountain, like many theaters were in that time. Philippi’s theater could hold 18,000, which is interesting because the total population at the time was just 10,000! Most likely it had several additions since Paul’s time, but still, it shows how people turned out for events at the theater which would include events like city-wide public meetings and dramas. But, the most popular by far were athletic events.

Paul was a huge sports fan. I believe if he were here today he would drive those of you who don’t like sports crazy, because he’d be talking football, golf, basketball, anything he could turn into a spiritual analogy because he knew how big sports is in our society. But in Paul’s day there was really just one major sport: track and field, and the biggest sporting event was the Olympics held in Greece at Olympia every four years. In fact, the entire calendar at the time was developed in four year increments known as an Olympiad. When Paul visited Philippi it could well have been the year before the Olympics, which would have meant that many contests would have taken place in Philippi among people qualifying and trying to make it to the Olympics.

No wonder Paul writes to the Philippians and used one of his favorite analogies: racing. Paul used this image often. In Corinthians he said, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete…?” To the Galatians he wrote, “You were running a good race, who cut in on you?” To Timothy he wrote, “I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

So if we go back to where we left off in last week’s reading in the third chapter of Philippians, we come to another racing analogy, “…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.” You don’t have to be a racing fan to know what Paul is talking about. (pic) Picture sprinters getting ready to cross the finish line. The race is close so they strain forward with every bit of energy they’ve got. All of their training, all their hard work, all their sacrifice, comes down to this moment. You stretch as far as you can to reach the goal. With that image Paul invites people to consider what are we stretching for, what goal are we after? (remove pic)

When a goal is important to us, we will do what it takes to reach it. We will sacrifice and stretch ourselves. In fact, if want to know a person’s goals, just pay attention to what they stretch for.

A person’s goal might be to make a lot of money. Some people get so committed to that goal that they are willing to stretch the rules. They are willing to cheat and do the business equivalent taking steroids because money is the goal.

Some people have success as a goal. They aren’t so concerned about money as they are the feeling of succeeding. You can have that goal in almost any area of life. You can want to be successful as a parent. That’s a noble goal, but you can start to stretch so far that you become controlling and domineering of your kids that you push them away.

 Some people might have pleasure as a goal. A pastor in NC tells about a friend of his in high school who had a goal to have sex with as many girls as he could. Its kind of a non-specific goal, but it’s a goal, and apparently he was striving for that goal. Years later he saw this guy and he was miserable. He was empty. What he thought was going to give him something was really giving up something. The pastor makes the point that “a goal is as significant as the goal is good.” (Steven Furtick Reaching the Goal)

We can strive really hard for things and discover there was something better worth striving for. That’s what Paul talked about in last week’s passage. He told how in his life as a Pharisee he strove after all these things he thought was important and then met Christ and came to look at all those as a bunch of skubala. And if you’re wondering what skubala means go back and see last week’s sermon.

In today’s passage Paul continues as he shares with the Philippians what he strives for in life. “…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.”

New Testament scholar William Barclay says that critical to understanding what Paul meant here is the Greek word teleios. It means “to attain a goal.” Now we recognize the prefix of the word. We have lots of words that begin with tele: telephone, telegram, television. It implies something being transmitted. I’ll come back to that thought in a little bit.

In this passage Paul uses the word teleios twice. The first appears in the preceding sentence: “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my (teleios) goal…” (v.12) Paul describes goal like a finish line, something you can complete. He was probably taking a swipe at a brand of religion popular in Greek society known as Mystery Religions. They were like secret knowledge societies. They believed the spiritual life was a gradual ascent to higher levels of insight. Eventually you arrive at completion where you know all there is to know. Have you ever known anybody in a mystery religion? Ever given birth to somebody who…

Well, Paul makes it clear, “Don’t confuse that thinking with Christianity. I haven’t arrived at my teleios (goal),” he says. “This isn’t that kind of religion. You don’t arrive. You are always growing, always learning, always improving.” He continues, “but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” Why did Christ take hold of Paul? Why did Jesus stop Paul in his tracks when he was a Pharisee on the road to Damascus to hunt Christ-followers there? To turn Paul into His servant. Paul’s most frequent description of himself was, “I, Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ.” Most of the time Paul was describing a particular type of servant. He was describing people who rowed ships. Remember the movie Ben Hur? There was a scene where servants were chained together under the deck of a ship while the rowed. This was what Paul had in mind, an under-rower. When you are an under-rower you don’t get to say which way the ship goes. You don’t steer. You row.

When you are an under-rower, you don’t get to determine the speed. Someone else bangs out the pace you keep. You can’t even come and go as you like. You are chained there. Paul says, “That’s who I am now. That’s what I live for. I want to be an under rower for Christ. That’s what stretches me. That’s what makes me strain.

This is about as counter-intuitive as you can get. I imagine people scratched their heads reading Paul in that time. Because everything in their society gave them a different message. Everything around them said, “The goal in life is to be happy. The goal in life is to be satisfied and not have to work so hard. If you do strive, that’s why you do it, so you can get a crown one day, and sign lucrative endorsement deals and get your picture on Wheaties!

And Paul would say, “If you want to make that your goal, go ahead. See if it gets you what you’re looking for. You won’t be the first to discover the futility of it. Just read Ecclesiastes. Written hundreds of years before Paul. The writer, known as The Teacher, talks about all the goals he pursued. He pursued pleasure, knowledge, success, wealth, even righteousness, but it didn’t give him what he was looking for. Everything came up short. In the end, he says, the only thing I found worthwhile is to put your life in God’s hands.

Paul says, we all have to figure this out for ourselves. I’m just telling what I found. When I quit trying to strive after things for myself, I found my life. That’s what Jesus said. He who would find his life will find it. Paul wrote to the Philippians to say, “It’s true.”

For Anchor Point this morning I interviewed Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama. He’s a lawyer who works to help people wrongly or unjustly convicted, many are death row inmates and most are black. In the HBO documentary I watched to get ready for my interview with him, he tells about a client with learning disabilities and a stuttering problem. Mr Stevenson found out that the last appeal was denied and he called the man to say that he would be executed. His telling of that story just ripped me. And when he got off the phone he said, “I can’t do this anymore.” And so I wanted to ask him about why he does what he does. Listen to this part of our interview today…(show clip)

“You get back more than you give.”

I wonder if that might be why more Americans aren’t happier, because we have a hard time letting go of the things we are wanting to give us life? Study after study shows how we have more than anyone in the world. Bigger homes, bigger cars, more land, more stuff, we are busier, travel more. But when asked, “Are you happy?” The average person says, “I’m trying to be. I’m striving for happiness, but I’m not there.”

What if we let go? What if we tried out the truth that you actually do get back more than you give? Perhaps the problem isn’t striving. It’s what we are striving for.

Paul comes back to this word teleios. It appears the second time in verse 15 but with a very different meaning: “All of us who are (teleios) mature should take this view of things.” (v.15) Now this is a different use of the same word. Teleios doesn’t mean goal or arrival, but maturity. Remember what I said about the prefix, tele, it communicates the idea of something being transmitted. This, Paul says, is why I never reach the goal, because I am maturing. I am growing.

“Don’t think,” says Paul, “that I am a perfect model of Christianity. I struggle to live out everything I write to you. I’m not there. I get selfish. I get demanding. My anger gets in the way. I have hurt people and ruined friendships. I am far from complete, but I’m striving. I’m striving to let Christ have more of me. In fact, I have come to learn that is the real goal. Crossing a finish line, winning a prize, that’s not the goal. Striving itself is the goal, to want to grow in Christ, to want to allow Christ to work through your life more is a goal worth striving after. Don’t worry about how perfect you are. Don’t worry about how far you feel you have to go. Just strive, and know that when you strive after Christ, he is working through you beyond what you can see.

I read an amazing story some years ago about a British bomber in World War II. It got separated from its squadron and a German fighter saw it and closed in. When it got close enough the German plane fired and sprayed explosive bullets into the plane several landing in the fuel tank. The crew braced for the explosion they knew would be their end, but nothing happened. Fuel poured out of the holes but they were able to make it back to base safely.

Once on the ground, they opened the fuel tank and removed the bullets. Each of them were hollow. No gun powder. Inside of one of them they found a note. It read: “We are Polish prisoner forced to worked in an ammunition depot. We did what we could. Please tell our families we’re alive.” And they signed it.

I imagine those prisoners got to a place where they accepted they might not live through the war, and said, “Let’s do what we can.” That’s freeing. When holding onto your life is no longer your goal, there’s freedom in that. When you don’t sink into depression because the stock market drops, when you don’t get upset because you missed a promotion or award, when you criticism is not what sinks your boat, you are free. You are free to put Christ first, and say, “God live in me. Use me. My life belongs to you.” Now that’s a goal to strive for.

In a sermon based on a sports analogy it seems best to close with a sports story. Some years ago there was a movie called Moneyball about Billy Beane, the General Manager of the Oakland A’s. All he wants to do is win a World Series. That’s his goal. And then he discovers this analytics kid who changes his entire philosophy about the game. In fact, his changed approach, changes the game of baseball.

But he still doesn’t win the World Series. At the end of the season he’s sitting in the office depressed, because his efforts didn’t give him the goal he thought he wanted. And then the analytics kid shows him something. Take a look at this…