Monday, March 18, 2013

Hold Fast to What You Have Attained

I remember long ago coming across a story about a man who discovered an ingenious way to capture monkeys–at least I think it was monkeys. I read this story a while back and my memory is not what it used to be. The man would fill a jar with food, but this jar had a narrow neck. It was just wide enough for a monkey to stick its hand through. Then, the man would secure the jar where it could not be moved. You see, the man had discovered something important regarding those monkeys. They would reach their hands into those jars to get food, but in their greed, they would try to grab as much food as they possibly could. With their fist being so full of food, they couldn’t remove it through the neck of the jar. And here was the interesting part, no matter what happened, they wouldn’t let go. They stubbornly held onto that food even when the man came to capture them. They would yell and scream and shake their other extremities, but they wouldn’t let go effectively capturing themselves.

Now, you might think that I am going to go on a rant about us being greedy and our need to let go of things.
No. I’m not. You’ve probably already heard enough folks saying that many of us have way more than we need. You’ve probably already heard enough folks tell you that a refusal to let go of things can lead to you being trapped by those things. You’ve already heard enough sermons in your life about discarding all of the external things. In fact, our second lesson this morning from Philippians would have led in that direction had I left it as suggested by the folks who put together the Revised Common Lectionary. But, like any good preacher, I did a bit more homework when I was reading through these texts. Generally, every week, I read the passages just before the suggested texts and those right after.

When I read this week’s second lesson, I noticed that the folks who put together the Lectionary, omitted verses 15 and 16–even though those two verses are a part of the paragraph in the New Revised Standard Version. My curiosity was piqued. I wondered why they would have been omitted. Of course, it’s purely guess work. I don’t know the hearts and minds of the people who suggested the readings for today. I don’t know their motivations. I can’t begin to fathom their reasons without directly speaking to them and asking them why such things were omitted. I just don’t know.

But here is something I do know. I do know that in my time serving as a pastor, I have heard and read a lot of pundits talking about the state of the Lutheran Church in America. I’ve heard and read a lot of folks talking about the decline of mainline denominations. No matter how they package their talks and books, the theme is always the same. They repeat ad nauseam, "The Church must change or die." In fact, I believe this tenet has been repeated so often, that to question it would be tantamount to questioning whether or not the Texans who were killed at the Alamo were heroes. You’d get more than a few strange looks, and some might even label you an out and out heretic!

And more often than not, when folks talk about the change that needs to occur in our churches and congregations, they aren’t shy about offering their laundry list about what needs to take place. Here’s a little list I composed off the top of my head:
The church needs more contemporary music.
The church needs more traditional music.
The church needs to stop being so judgmental.
The church needs to stop emphasizing doctrine.
The church needs to be more welcoming.
The church needs to be more ethnically diverse.
The church needs to use more technology.
The church needs to listen to young people more.
The church needs to care more about the poor.
Oh, and I could go on and on. But I won’t. Instead, I’m going to point out how the beginning of our second lesson from Philippians bolsters this theme of change. Paul begins by saying "More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith."

Paul expressly says that he regards everything as loss compared to the value of knowing Jesus Christ. In fact, Paul says that losing all things isn’t bad. He calls everything else rubbish, trash, not only worthy of being discarded, but that it should be discarded. "Jesus is most important! Change everything–get rid of everything except for Him!"

Who would argue with this? Certainly, I wouldn’t. For knowing Christ Jesus is the crux of Christianity. Believing that Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead is central to salvation. Yet, as I have oftentimes said in my sermons, Christianity isn’t just about belief. Christianity isn’t just about intellectually saying, "I believe that this stuff is true." No. Christianity goes far beyond that as it affects every aspect of our very lives. Christianity is about our continued transformation until we are transformed into the image and likeness of Jesus Himself. Yes, this means we are called to act like Jesus, talk like Jesus, and be like Jesus. Quite an impossible task, is it not.

Paul recognized this as well. He continues, "10I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus."

You see, Paul himself knew that he hadn’t attained the goal of knowing Jesus fully and being like Him. Paul knew he hadn’t reached that point in his life, and we know that neither have we. We know we haven’t become like Jesus fully. We know we have not reached the place where our hearts and minds are in line with Christ’s heart and mind. But Paul isn’t complacent. He doesn’t worry that he’s not there yet. He has a goal. "I press on to make it my own because Jesus has made me His own." Think about that for a moment.
Do you know why we strive for perfection even if we know we can’t make it? Do you know why we strive to be like Jesus when we constantly fall on our faces time and again? Do you know why we struggle to be sinless even though we keep sinning? Because Christ has made us His own. We do so out of respect, out of love, out of our desire to please God–not because we will be punished or that we have to so that we may somehow attain salvation. But we press on because of what Christ has first done for us.

It is after this important tenet that Paul adds those last two sentences. "15Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. 16Only let us hold fast to what we have attained." Paul knows that as time goes by, different thoughts will possess us. Paul knows that new ideas and understandings will be revealed. Paul knows that things do not stay the same forever. It is the nature of humankind. We need change in order to keep us stimulated and motivated and–dare I say it–alive. But there are certain things we need to hold fast to. There are certain things which we shouldn’t let go of. There are certain principles and beliefs that we cannot offer any compromises on.

"Hold fast to what we have attained," Paul says. And what have we attained? What is so valuable to hold onto that we may become trapped by it, like those monkeys holding onto that food?

Just this, you are saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus. Your salvation has been secured by Him and through Him. No one can ever take that from you, and you should never, ever seek to compromise this belief. Hold fast to what you have attained. Amen.


Kathy said...

We had the same reading yesterday. I think it is really time to accept what Paul is saying.

[you may block this comment if you wish. i notice most people, when they comment on your posts, comment on FB. over the weekend i was blocked from 2 more websites -- female pastors. they both are really, really mad at me. Needless to say, I have examined my conscience on this. i will continue. Jesus knocked over a few tables, remember?]

Both Martin Luther and the Catholic Church agree that Faith is a free gift. It cannot be earned. It cannot be attained. We cannot work to attain it -- and it is difficult to hold on to -- in Spanish they say "Una mariposa de luz" A butterfly of light.

Yesterday, as always, I heard the readings in Spanish. (I live in a no-English parish.) The word I heard was "perfeccion." The NOAB has "reached the goal" or "been made perfect."

The theology of Paul is crystal clear. I will not expand on it.

Luther said sola fide -- then what? The simple Truth that the CC teaches -- and that I believe Luther meant -- is this: Faith is a gift. (Salvation) Perfection comes through our co-operation with Grace -- our work, our striving. (Sanctification)

We agree on this.

David said...

301as the Church continues to hold fast to what we have attained, we soon notice the laundry list you provided is not what is at the center of our proclamation. As you say, we are save by grace through faith. As this becomes more recognizable as core teaching, suddenly the list won't be as important.

I understand the need for more this, updated that, for the church and the world are ever changing. But it is what lies at the center of our worship, the center of our preaching and teaching, Christ crucified and risen,that is what is important. As we hold firm to these things, the method by which we express them becomes less central.

Kevin Haug said...


Spot on, sir. Spot on. Thank you for reading.