Sunday, 15 October 2017

False peaks of faith

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
15 October 2017

Philippians 3.4b-14
Exodus 20.1-4, 7-9, 12-20

Did anyone get to see the World Athletics Championships
            at the Olympic Park over the summer?
With the best athletes from around the world
            doing battle against both themselves and each other,
            all for the glory of taking the Gold medal.

From Ussain Bolt pulling up in agony in the 4 x 100 metre relay,
            to Mo Farrar taking Gold in 10,000 metre run,
the training schedules are rigorous and exhaustive,
            or do I mean exhausting?

Anyway, I have to confess that when I was at school,
            I was never much of a sprinter…
            it just wasn’t me!
The sudden burst of energy that was required
            to propel the successful sprinter down the hundred yard dash
                        in 10 seconds or whatever
            just didn’t seem to be within my capability.

The National Institute for Medical Research describe the short sprint like this:

An athlete accelerates [their body] to reach a speed
            of more than forty kilometres per hour in about fifty strides.
Although the sprinter may not need to breathe
            for most of the ten seconds of the race,
the heart will be pumping two hundred millilitres of blood in every heart beat,
            or about four buckets-full per minute.

Well, not in my body, is all I can say!

Sprinting, throwing, hitting, jumping…
            all of these and more, leave me exhausted and in last place.

However, that isn’t to say that I have no athletic abilities…
            Cycling, jogging, and swimming
            were all sports at which I was OK
                        Not great, you understand, but OK
And I continue to swim a mile at the Oasis over the road
            several times per week.

You see, I’m more of a long-distance stamina kind of person

I might not be very quick over a hundred yards
            but I’ll still be going five miles later
            when the sprinter has long since given up
            and gone for a shower.

And this ability to keep going, and going, and going
            has stood me in good stead on various occasions over the years

Liz did her Gold Duke of Edinburgh expedition when she was at school
            and so when we go away on our holidays
we often find ourselves surveying various unlikely looking mountains,
            with Liz excitedly poring over an ordnance survey map
            plotting our route to the top.

In fact, next week, we head off to Peru,
            and, altitude sickness allowing,
            will be taking the high path from Macchu Picchu
                        to the peak of Huyana Picchu.

And believe me, when you’re climbing a mountain
            you need all the long-distance stamina you can get…

It was Liz who introduced me,
            on one of our early holidays together in the Lake District
to the concept of the ‘false peak’.

I’m sure you all know what I’m talking about here?
            It’s when you can see the top of the mountain in front of you,
            and your hopes rise, and you walk that little bit faster,
                        and you strain that little bit more,
                        because you’re excited that you’re nearly at the top.
            but then, when you get to the false-peak,
            you realise that actually it isn’t the top at all,
                        - it was merely an interim horizon.
            and that actually you’re only a tiny part of the way up
                        with the vast bulk of the mountain
                        still rising in front of you, waiting to be climbed

We had just this experience once
            on one of our walking holidays in the Austrian Tyrol.

Having found what look like a mountain-top lake on the map
            we set off in search of it,
only to discover that the footpaths were nowhere near where they were supposed to be,
            and we climbed, and climbed, and climbed,
and that every time we thought we’d reached the top,
            the horizon had moved and we would see yet more climbing in front of us.

Encountering a false peak can be one of the most depressing experiences,
            because it demoralises the climber
            and it saps all the enthusiasm that has got them this far
                        as they are forced to contemplate the much greater climb
                        that still lies in front of them

Now, I don’t know whether Paul was a regular mountain walker…

Certainly he went to all the best schools, as he trained to be a Pharisee
so you can be fairly certain that if there was a first-century-equivalent
            to the Gold Duke of Edinburgh’s expedition,
            then Paul would have taken it
And, knowing Paul,
            he would probably have got top marks in all the categories!

After all, he does rather go on in our passage this morning,
            about how completely brilliant he is
            at pretty much everything he has ever turned his hand to.

With shades of Trump-like boasting,
            he says, ‘If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more.’ (3.4)
To which I always find myself wanting to mutter, ‘show off’.
            Whether it’s keeping the law to nth degree,
            or persecuting Christians, Paul was the best, the very best,
            In fact, no-one has ever been betterer at persecuting Christians than he has. Fact.

Well, anyway…

I suspect Paul did know something about the joys and frustration
            of climbing mountains
because it is this image which is in view
            in the second part of the passage we read earlier.

Having made his point about how great he is,
            he then has this rare moment of humility,
where he says, ‘Yet whatever gains I had,
            these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.’ (3.7)

In fact, more than that, he says he regards everything as loss
            because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus his Lord.

Paul says that for the sake of Jesus, he has suffered the loss of all things,
            and regards them as rubbish, in order that he may gain Christ. (3.8)

Now, I know something about the pressure to achieve.
            I went to that kind of school.
I understand that in some schools, it’s the nerdy swots who get bullied.
            In my school, it was the precise opposite of this:
                        The academic excellers were lauded,
                        and those of us who got mediocre marks were derided.

Nothing was ever good enough for my school,
            short of straight ‘A’s in all subjects.
Which as a mere one ‘A’ at GSCE
                        (in RE in case you’re wondering. I figured, stick with what you know),
            and none at A-Level, kind of guy,
                        marked me out as something of an under-achiever.

Well, Paul knows something of the feeling of not hitting the peak,
            not attaining the goal.
In spite of all his excellence,
            he had come to realise that there was so much more that lay before him,
            than the peaks of achievement he had already left behind him.

So he uses the image of pressing onward towards a goal,
            in the face of discouragement and exhaustion,
as a metaphor for the Christian life,
            which has been both his own experience,
            and the experience he expects of those he is writing to.

Paul begins by defining his goal:
            and he says that his goal in life
            is to know Christ and the power of his resurrection
                        so that he may attain himself the resurrection from the dead.

This is the goal towards which Paul is pushing:
            to become like Christ
            and to join Christ in resurrection

Which sounds like a fantastic goal, doesn’t it?

            I mean, who could argue with that as a goal?

Don’t we all want to become like Christ?
            the greatest, the bestest human of all time!
Don’t we all want to live forever?
            to see the hold and fear of death broken!

If there is ever a carrot to dangle in front of people,
            surely this is the one? Isn’t it?

Except, of course, things aren’t so simple – or, indeed, so attractive
            because Paul then also spells out how he is hoping to achieve this goal.
And he says that he hopes to become like Christ
            not in terms of being wise, and good, and holy
            but in terms of sharing in Christ’s sufferings!

Well, now, hold on a minute…
            this is suddenly starting to sound a bit less attractive…
Imagine the baptismal service, imagine the altar call…

“Brothers and sisters, dearly loved of God
            I want to challenge you all tonight to become like Christ
“Brothers and sisters, Have you seen Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ?
            well, that’s the path I’m inviting you to tread tonight
“Will all those who feel the Lord stirring their heart
            to begin a life of suffering and rejection
            please come to the front during the next hymn?...”

…But this is what Paul says…

If we are to know Christ and the power of his resurrection
            we need to know him also in his suffering and death,
Because without suffering and death
            there can be no experience of resurrection.

As my Dad says to me on a regular basis
            when I phone him for a moan about something or other,
“Simon, no-one ever said it was going to be easy”.

And yet so often we do seem to tell people
            that becoming a Christian will be easy.
Or, if we don’t say it explicitly,
            we imply it in so many ways.

So often, we make conversion the goal
            which we encourage people to press on towards.

In so many of the programmes for evangelism,
            so beloved by churches desperate to stave off numerical decline,
            from Alpha courses, through Contagious Christian training,
            and into Purpose Driven mission statements,
we put so much of our own effort
            into helping people become Christians.

And surely this is no bad thing, is it?…
            I mean, with numbers declining in the churches in this country
            isn’t a decade or two of evangelism the obvious solution!?

The Baptist Union even changed its strapline a decade ago (2007),
            to ‘Encouraging Missionary Disciples’.

And so we make conversion the goal,
            and we struggle with our potential converts
            as they press on through their doubts and their questions,
And we invest huge resources in helping them to realise
            that the answer to their sin and sense of loneliness,
            is a relationship with Jesus Christ
                        who will forgive them
                        and never leave them by the power of his Spirit.

And so, as I said, it is conversion that becomes the goal

But what concerns me in this
            is that conversion, as we so often promote it, becomes a false peak,
which ultimately leaves people demoralised and exhausted,
            and utterly unprepared for the mountain that still lies in front of them.

For Paul, the goal was not conversion:
            This wasn’t Paul’s own experience…
Even as dramatic a Damascus Road experience as Paul’s
            was not understood by Paul as being the goal.
It was merely a ‘false peak’.
            The first of many.

Actually, maybe the word ‘false’ is slightly misleading here
            because, of course, ‘false peaks’ do still have to be ascended
            - they still require effort, and exertion, and determination.
But what is ‘false’ about a false peak is that it isn’t the top of the mountain,
            even though, from the perspective of the approaching climber,
            it might appear to be so.

From the perspective of the pre-Christian, if there is such a thing,
            who is journeying towards conversion,
it can be hard to see beyond that particular horizon.

But from the point of view of the life-long Christian
            looking back fifty years or more;
the mountain that was conversion,
            can now be seen to be little more than a small foothill
            to the much greater mountain of the life of faith.

So we need to tell people who are on a journey towards faith
            that the goal is not conversion,
the goal is becoming like Christ in his suffering and death,
            in order to become like Christ in the power of his resurrection.

And what worries me about some Christians I know
            is that they have struggled over the peak of conversion,
but have then sat down to wait and catch their breath
            sometimes for months, sometimes for years, sometimes for a lifetime.

It’s like they get to that first false peak
            but then turn around and spend the rest of their lives
            looking back at how far they have come
without turning to face forwards again
            and beginning the journey of pressing on towards the much greater goal
            that still lies in front of them.

As Paul says in verse twelve
            “I have not already obtained or reached the goal
            “but I press on to make it my own
            “because Christ Jesus has made me his own”

Paul knows full well that he has not yet reached the goal.

This man with the most dramatic of all conversions,
            who went on to shape the course of Christian history,
            through his brilliant pastoral and theological thinking and writing,
knew that he had not in any way reached the goal.

He knew of the struggle that still lay before him,
            as he pressed on through life to an eternity with Christ.

And he gives us a glimpse of his motivation to continue the journey
            when he says “I press on to make the goal my own
                        “because Christ Jesus has already made me his own”

Every climber needs motivation
            to give them that single-minded obsessive desire
                        to press on through the cold and snow,
            to press on up the steep incline in front of them.

And Paul gives us our motivation here:
            we press on to make the goal our own
            because Jesus has already made us his own.

Grace and faith combine in this verse
            to draw us on through the hardships of life,
            towards the goal
                        of knowing the power of the resurrection of Christ Jesus.

I’m not proposing to get into some great debate here
            about predestination…
What is clearly implied in Paul’s writing
            is action on both sides:
In the cross Christ has made us his own,
            and in life we are to press on to make Christ our own.

And this very act of pressing on
            implies an ongoing struggle.

Just because we are forgiven and our sins are washed away,
            doesn’t mean that we are suddenly free from temptation,
or that we suddenly have a miraculous ability to resist evil
            under all circumstances.

It is not for nothing that when Jesus was asked how to pray,
            he instructed his disciples to ask on a regular basis
                        for deliverance from evil
                        and avoidance of temptation.

We are not there yet…
            we are part-way up the mountain,
                        and from time to time we will stumble and fall,
            sometimes we will fall and roll back,
                        meaning we have to re-climb
                        over ground we have already covered before,
            sometimes we will get thoroughly lost.

But through it all, says Paul, we are to press on towards the goal.

Sometimes we will face hardships that are not of our making,
            as the spiritual equivalent of an avalanche
            descends upon us and threatens to sweep us away.

And these times are perhaps the most difficult times of the Christian journey,
            because it is at these times that we doubt God’s very call on our lives.
When the avalanche never seems to stop,
            and we find ourselves struggling to even stand upright,
            it can feel as if there is nothing else to do,
                        but collapse in a heap
                        and be swept back down the mountain to the very bottom.

Well, it may be small consolation, but Paul knew all about hardships:
            both those of his own making
            and those over which he had no control.

He knew all about guilt and sin:
            never forget this is the man who put Christians to death.

He knew all about unfair treatment:
            He faced beatings and imprisonment for no crime
            other than proclaiming the salvation that comes in Jesus.

And he knew all about loss and sorrow,
            writing on occasions with tears in his eyes
            to those who he loved
                        as he shared with them in their grief.

And in all this his response was to press on
            - to not give up the struggle.

He said: “this one thing I do: 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 Christ Jesus”

And the only conclusion I can draw from this
            is that the Christian life is one of struggle and hardship.

Sure, there are fantastic views along the way,
            there are occasional places of refuge from the storms,
            where we can rest a while,
there are stretches of ground which are flat and easy,
            in between the stretches which are steep and treacherous.

But fundamentally, it is an upward climb towards a prize.

And this sense of journey and struggle,
            brings with it, I think, an inherent sense of dissatisfaction.

The person who makes camp on the plateau
            just beyond the peak of conversion,
and settles down to enjoy the view,
            is not living the life of the Christian disciple.

The true follower of Christ
            is forever dissatisfied with the way things are,
            and forever pressing on to see things change.

The call of Christ on our lives,
            is to be a people who want to see the world different.

We are called to be those who are the prophets:
            who speak out our dissatisfaction with the way things are
and who blaze the trail onwards
            towards the prize of knowing Christ
            and the power of his resurrection.

Because it is Christ alone
            who can bring new life where there is death

So when we look around us and see those people
            in whom hope and love have died
It is Christ alone who can bring new life.

When we see death of justice and righteousness
            it is the power of Christ’s resurrection
            which alone can bring new life.

When we see the death of relationships
            it is Christ alone who can bring new life.

And this is the goal for which we press on:
            the goal of the transforming power of Christ’s resurrection.
Nothing else would be worth the struggle
            and nothing else is enough to make it worth giving up the struggle.

And so we press on toward the goal
            for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.


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