Practicing a New Way

Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
April 7, 2019

Philippians 3: 4b-14 (CEB)
If anyone else has reason to put their confidence in physical advantages, I have even more:
5I was circumcised on the eighth day. I am from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin. I am a Hebrew of the Hebrews. With respect to observing the Law, I’m a Pharisee. 6With respect to devotion to the faith, I harassed the church. With respect to righteousness under the Law, I’m blameless.
7These things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ. 8But even beyond that, I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have lost everything for him, but what I lost I think of as sewer trash, so that I might gain Christ 9and be found in him. In Christ I have a righteousness that is not my own and that does not come from the Law but rather from the faithfulness of Christ. It is the righteousness of God that is based on faith. 10The righteousness that I have comes from knowing Christ, the power of his resurrection, and the participation in his sufferings. It includes being conformed to his death 11so that I may perhaps reach the goal of the resurrection of the dead.
12It’s not that I have already reached this goal or have already been perfected, but I pursue it, so that I may grab hold of it because Christ grabbed hold of me for just this purpose. 13Brothers and sisters, I myself don’t think I’ve reached it, but I do this one thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. 14The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus.

Some of you know that my undergraduate major was music education. My primary instrument is trombone. I started taking lessons when I was twelve or thirteen while in Junior High School. At that age, I begrudgingly practiced my trombone 15 minutes a day according to the instruction of my trombone teacher, who was also my band director. This was the status quo for me until I got into college and declared my major. Through my four years of college, I practiced my trombone for two hours a day at least six days a week. On top of that, I also had 4-5 hours a week of band practice, 3 hours a week of orchestra practice, 3 hours a week of jazz band practice, 2 hours a week of brass quintet practice, and 2 hours a week of trombone choir practice. In other words, I was practicing my trombone for at least 25 hours every week. What’s the old adage, “Practice makes perfect,” right? So I practiced and I practiced, and I certainly wasn’t perfect, but by the time I graduated, I was a pretty good trombone player.

Then I started a full-time job. A couple of years later, I was called to ordained ministry and entered seminary. From one year to the next I played my trombone less and less. Until, about eight or nine years ago, I just stopped altogether. Until this past week, that is. My band director and music education methods professor from college will be retiring at the end of this year, and I will be going back to Furman to play in his final concert. The band office sent the parts out this past Monday, and they sent me the 1st trombone parts. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, just understand that you don’t play 1st trombone when you have even played the trombone in almost ten years. So, as soon as I saw my assignment, I quickly went and pulled my trombone out of the back corner of the closet from behind ALL the Christmas decorations and started practicing again. Thankfully, in some respects, playing the trombone is like riding a bike. But the practice is necessary to get my chops back. For a lot of endeavors, practice is necessary. We will spend lots of time in our lives practicing and honing our skills in different areas: sports, arts, music, hobbies, even (and maybe especially) in our work.

We work and we practice so that we can claim our credentials, our qualifications. That is exactly what Paul first does here as he writes to the Philippians. “I was circumcised on the eighth day. I am from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin. I am a Hebrew of the Hebrews. With respect to observing the Law, I’m a Pharisee. With respect to devotion to the faith, I harassed the church. With respect to righteousness under the Law, I’m blameless.” Paul was doing what any of us will do from time to time, listing his crecdentials. What are your credentials?

I am a cradle Methodist. I am a Bachelor of Music, magna cum laude. I am a Master of Divinity (as if anyone can really master divinity…), summa cum laude. I am called by God and ordained. I am a third generation Methodist minister. Maybe these are qualifications that matter in the world or maybe in the Methodist Church, but in the grand scheme, Paul says, such credentials are not consequential. A graduate degree with honors might seem admirable in the world today, but it’s far from being the most important thing in our lives. In first-century Judaism, it might have seemed a big deal that Paul was a “Hebrew of the Hebrews,” but ultimately, Paul reveals that such credentials mean absolutely nothing. “These things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ. But even beyond that, I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have lost everything for him, but what I lost I think of as sewer trash, so that I might gain Christ and be found in him.”

I have practiced countless hours to be a good trombone player, but that is sewer trash. I am a cradle Methodist, but that is sewer trash. I have two degrees, but that is sewer trash. I am an ordained and fully credentialed clergy in the United Methodist Church, but that is sewer trash. All that I have practiced, everything that I have worked for in this world is nothing. So if all of these things that we put so much value on in the world don’t matter, then what does? What is truly important?

Well, Paul has an answer for that as well. It is “the superior knowledge of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Paul goes on, “In Christ I have a righteousness that is not my own and that does not come from the Law but rather from the faithfulness of Christ. It is the righteousness of God that is based on faith. The righteousness that I have comes from knowing Christ, the power of his resurrection, and the participation in his sufferings. It includes being conformed to his death so that I may perhaps reach the goal of the resurrection of the dead.” Our greatest accomplishment in life is not the skills we perfect, or the degrees that we earn, or the jobs that we hold, or the salary that we draw. No, our greatest accomplishment is knowing Christ.

As we continue through this Lenten journey to new life. This is a lesson we need to hear. We try to gain “life” in this world in all sorts of ways; through education and skill development, by achieving status in our communities, by associating with certain people or groups, or climbing the ranks of the corporate ladder. Such pursuits might get us some worldly status, but it does not give us life. The only thing (The. Only. Thing.) in all of this world that is truly life-giving is faith in Jesus Christ. And part of what is so remarkable about this great credential is that there is nothing we do to earn it or to deserve it; we can only receive it. The only thing we need to practice is faith; deep and abiding faith in our savior. Because as much as we practice to perfect certain skills, new life is gained simply by receiving in faith the perfecting work that Christ has already done!

Some of you may be familiar with Blaise Pascal. Pascal was a leading scientist and mathematician in the 1600s. He proved the existence of the vacuum. But that was not the defining moment of his life. I want to leave you today with a reflection, written by Pascal in 1654, on the greatest moment of his life:
“March 23…From about half past ten in the evening until half past twelve
FIRE
God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the
Philosophers and savants
Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace.
God of Jesus Christ.
My God and Thy God
‘Thy God shall be my God’
Forgetfulness of the world and of everything except God
He is to be found only in the ways taught in the Gospel Grandeur of the human soul
Righteous Father, the world hath not known Thee, but I have known Thee
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy
I have fallen from Him
‘They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters’
‘My God, wilt Thou forsake me?’
May I not fall from Him for ever
This is life eternal, that they might know Thee, the only
True God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent
Jesus Christ
Jesus Christ
I have fallen away: I have fled from Him, denied Him, crucified Him
May I not fall from Him for ever.
We hold him only by the ways taught in the Gospel
Renunciation total and sweet
Total submission to Jesus Christ and to my director
Eternally in joy for a day’s exercise on earth
I will not forget Thy word. Amen.”

Friends, in Christ is certitude, and joy, and peace, and LIFE. As Paul says, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection…It’s not that I have already reached this goal or have already been perfected, but I pursue it, so that I may grab hold of it because Christ grabbed hold of me for just this purpose. Brothers and sisters, I myself don’t think I’ve reached it, but I do this one thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus.”

May this be our goal. May this be our practice. May each of us find new life in Christ Jesus!

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