Sermon for Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 17, 2013
St. Paul Lutheran Church, Wallis, Texas
Sermon Text: Philippians 3:8-14
Sermon Theme: A Christian Is Always a Christian in Progress
(Sources: Concordia Journal, Winter 2013; Emphasis online Commentary; Emphasis online Illustrations; original ideas; Brokhof, Series C workbook; the Apostle Paul’s Missionary Travel Companions online; Epaphroditus, online Alfred place church; Introduction to Philippians, Concordia Self Study Bible)
Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
One day while staying at his grandmother’s house, Tommy asked Grandma about baptism. She told him that their pastor had baptized him when he was two weeks old. The fact that he was baptized so soon after he was born fascinated Tommy and prompted him to ask her what baptism truly meant. Tommy was familiar with baptism because he had witnessed the baptism of countless numbers of babies in his church, so he knew all about the ritual of baptism. But he wanted to know what the Sacrament really meant for him.
Grandma told him that his baptism was an assurance by God that his sins were forgiven. And that Jesus, by way of the Holy Spirit, would lead and guide him, inspiring him to be a faithful follower of Christ the rest of his life.
“So,” said Tommy, “being baptized isn’t the end of it, is it? I am to be a faith person all my life.”
Tommy was right! It isn’t easy to be a Christian. There will be hard times which will test your faith. God always wants to know if you are serious about your discipleship. You need always to be aware that you must press on regardless of circumstances that may be discouraging. You may be interested in knowing that Martin Luther, whenever he would be going through very difficult times would say, “I am baptized! I am baptized! I am baptized!” Reminding himself over and over helped him to keep his faith!
The congregation at Philippi was Paul’s pride and joy. The Philippians put grace into practice and were an inspiration to him and to other congregations. They were able to provide Paul with financial assistance, which, at this difficult time in his life, enabled him and his ministry to survive. This letter to the Philippians is known as Paul’s letter of joy, — he uses the word “joy” 16 times. After all, joy should be an outgrowth of grace.
It’s a rather short letter, and it almost needs to be seen as a whole rather than just looking at the piece of it that is our text. Here’s the story:
Paul was in Rome several years after the trumped-up charges that caused his arrest in Jerusalem. Paul was a prisoner awaiting adjudication before Caesar himself. However, since Paul was a Roman citizen with rights and freedoms, and the charges against him were religious rather than secular, he was more like under house arrest and could arrange for his own living circumstances.
Paul was kind of like the Circuit Counselor who was in charge of a group of congregations and pastors, so he was not a lone missionary. He had like 19 missionary travel companions, and, in addition to that, 16 more co-workers and fellow prisoners and supporters. Some of his travel companions were Timothy, Titus, Silas, Luke, Barnabas, Priscilla, Philemon, and Onesimus just to name about half of them. Some of his other co-workers and supporters were Erastus, Lucius, Lydia, Jason, Phebe, and Epaphroditus, just to name a few. Knowing some of the names helps to pull us into the reality of Paul’s missionary work.
Epaphroditus was either the pastor or the congregational leader at Philippi, and it was his job to bring the rather large gift from his church to Paul. It was a gift of money, but also, supplies, without which Paul would not have survived. Epaphroditus stayed on with Paul for some time assisting him as a servant. You know, most of these early Christians were poor, coming from lowly walks of life, many were slaves or former slaves, like Onesimus who was Philemon’s slave. They were nobodies by the world’s standards. Only a very few of them were wealthy like Lydia. This letter is the only place in the Bible where Epaphroditus is mentioned, we don’t ever see him again; yet, sending him to Paul with the money was a very important mission, so he must have played a significant role in the early church.
Those Christians who were rich enough to have slaves treated them like brothers and sisters rather than slaves. As Christians they believed they were servants of all, so there was a great sense of brotherly love and equality. Epaphroditus was Paul’s servant, but also was pastor of the flock at Philippi. A slave was owned by his master; a servant was not.
As Paul writes to his good friends in Philippi, he encourages them to do the right thing and follow in his pattern of values and behaviors. They should give up the temporary medals and honors that put them in the spotlight of fleeting fame for fifteen minutes, and focus instead on what really matters – being joined to the one who loved us from eternity so that we might find a life to live for eternity.
As Christians, we remember the past as rubbish, that past before our conversion. For the present we live in Christ’s righteousness which comes by grace through faith. We know that as a Christian we never have it made, we are always in the process of going from sinner to saint; we are always a project in progress. There is much yet to be done. So that continues in the future, and also we look forward to the ultimate goal which is oneness in Christ.
Paul says in our text, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But 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 upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Paul’s words would be read by all of the congregations, not just the Philippians, as these letters were passed around from church to church. Obviously the Philippians were closer to reaching their goals as true Christians than any of the other congregations, and so they didn’t really need Paul’s advice as much as some of the others, but because of their humility, they would be the first to listen to and heed the advice of their much admired spiritual leader.
Just like all of the congregations Paul served, we as a congregation need also to consider our past, present and future, and to set our goals as we plan for the ultimate goal. We can’t just drift like leaves blowing in the wind, then our songs should be lullabies and funeral dirges rather than hymns of action and praise!
Mark Twain once said, “if you took all the people who fell asleep in church and laid them end to end, they would be a whole lot more comfortable.” The issue here is whether our churches will fall asleep or whether they will press on to the goal that God has set before us.
Almost three months have passed before us in this new year. How have we done? You know, in the early churches in America, congregations elected or appointed what they called a “head-knocker,” and his job was to stand in the back of the church with a long stick that had kind of a billy club on the end of it; and anyone in the church who started dozing off, or was already asleep, the head-knocker would give him a little tap on his head to wake him up.
I hope now for the rest of the year, the officers of our church will act as spiritual head-knockers, encouraging us on to make goals, to seek to fulfill goals and to continue moving toward the ultimate goal. And may the head-head-knocker oversee those with authority. We can do this! We can do this, because we are dearly loved, completely forgiven, and fully accepted by God. And may we never forget that a Christian is always a Christian in progress! Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.