Note: This web version of the sermon includes links.
Dying to Win the Prize
Have you ever wondered how a preacher decides what to preach about? How do I choose scripture? How do I decide what to key in on? Where do sermons come from? These are questions that those of you who have to listen to sermons have some right to know from those of us who preach them. I want to give you an all-access, behind the scenes tour of this weeks sermon to find out.
First, come the readings from the Bible. I dont pick those. The readings have already been picked for me. Our readings are taken from a lectionary used by Episcopal Churches all over the country. A lectionary is a system of reading scripture in church. Each week we have a reading from the Old Testament, followed by a selection from the Psalms, the reading from a portion of the New Testament letters, and finally a readings from one of the four Gospels. Our lectionary is based on a three year cycle that has us reading nearly all of the Bible in three years.
This scripture reading that we just finished with my reading of the Gospel takes up a good portion of the service. We spend that time because it is in the Bible that we encounter the stories of the Christian faith that have nourished people for centuries. An important part of my job is to comment on scripture each Sunday in a way that allows the Word of God to take root in our lives.
I carefully read through all the scripture for the week and begin to pray about what I should preach on. Most weeks, I find that the scripture that bothers me is the one on which I end up preaching. If on my first few readings, one passage keeps bothering me, I usually end up studying and reflecting on it until a sermon emerges.
This week, the problem was Paul. Lets face it, the Apostle Paul is so head over heels into this whole Christian thing that he goes a bit off the deep end at times. Listen to what he wrote to the Christians in Philippi, 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. Well, rubbish is the word our New Revised Standard Translation uses. They didnt have a lot of choices. Paul was talking with a potty mouth. But to clean up the crude Christians Greek, we would be more accurate to say that he counted everything as compost, manure, or even poop compared to knowing Jesus. Now for a preacher in search of a safe passage to preach on, that one sentence is enough to make you slow down and reconsider. You have to stop and ask, How can I clean that up for a Sunday morning crowd?
Then Paul pushes the envelope further. Paul goes on to write that he wants to share in Christs sufferings by becoming like him in death. If you pause on that thought for just a minute, it sounds like Paul would like to be killed for Christ. Well, I hope Im not blowing the ending to the book for you, but Paul reached that prize he was striving for. Paul became a martyr for Christianity. The word martyr means witness. Its the Greek word that is exactly like our word for what we call the people who testify in a trial, witnesses. Paul was a witness for Christ when he was beheaded by Rome for his faith.
Paul was, of course, not alone. The Roman Empire killed thousands upon thousands of Christians who would not renounce their faith in God. The saying was that the early church was watered by the blood of the martyrs. As Rome killed more and more Christians, more and more people became Christians. It wasnt uncommon for someone to come to faith in Jesus after seeing a Christian martyred. The Christians would follow Jesus example on the cross and pray for the people who tortured them even as they died.
OK. Lets pause a moment here. Do you see what I have done so far? I took Pauls worst statement. The one where he sounds like he actually wanted to die for his Christian faith and I have spread out from there to put Paul in the context of his day. The desire to die for faith in Christ was common in the early Christian church and it was an idea that Rome promoted through the executions themselves.
What I do next in writing a sermon is to see where a train of thought leads. What else do I know, in this case, about Christian martyrs? How does this relate to the passage for the week? I always keep coming back to the scripture reading. For this week, I kept returning to Philippians 3:8-14. I read and reread the passage as I am working on a sermon to make sure I dont get off on a tangent that has little if anything to do with the scripture.
My next step this week was to look back into Ignatius, an early Bishop of the Church. I remembered reading the seven letters Ignatius wrote while he was en route to Rome for his martyrdom. Around the year 105, Ignatius was sentenced to die for the Christian faith and he wrote to churches concerning his impending death. Ignatius wrote to the church in Rome asking that they not seek to interfere with his coming martyrdom. The roughly 70-year old Bishop asked the Roman Christians to leave the matter in Gods hands. I looked up Ignatius letter to Rome on the World Wide Web and I found just what I somehow remembered from my first reading. Ignatius wrote, It is not my desire that you should please men, but God . For if you are silent concerning me, I shall become Gods; but if you show your love to my flesh, I shall again have to run my race.
Bingo, there was a connection. Ignatius wrote about running a race. Paul used race language in writing to the Philippians. Paul wrote about not looking back, pressing on toward the prize. Paul and Ignatius were both running a race and somehow death seemed to be the way to win the prize. Thats when I had to stop in my tracks a bit and think about how this all connects. See what I did? I followed a trail and found a connection that pulled me deeper into the scripture. Sometimes it works that way. Sometimes I find dead ends and start all over again.
As I pressed on toward my prize of a sermon for the week, I had to go back to the letter to the Philippians. What is this prize that Paul is pressing toward? What is the race that Ignatius was running? Why does the winners platform for each of them seem to have come in the form of a public execution in Rome?
To help the quest, I read the passage through in Greek and, as my own translation skills are not as good as the experts are, I also read several translations. In the Greek, which is the language Paul wrote in, I found that the passage had race imagery. The word for goal was a word for a mark to fix your eye on as you bear down the home stretch toward the finish line. Nothing else matters in that homestretch but the goal and for Paul, that goal was Jesus. The word for prize was the same word they used to describe the prizes won at the Isthmian games, the then equivalent of the Olympics.
The New International Version gives a very good rendition of the Greek. The NIV says, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. The call came at the start of the race. The race is run as Paul follows the course set for him by God. Paul has looked ahead to the goal, the distant object at the finish line and Paul already can see how the race must end. If Paul is obedient to Gods call, Paul will end up with his neck on a Roman executioners chopping block. Paul didnt pick the goal. Paul didnt give the call. God did. Paul is trying to be obedient to that call and see it through. Looking to the example of his Lord, Paul is far from being bothered about the way his own race will turn out. Paul closely identifies with Jesus and he is pleased that he will be given a chance to suffer and die in obedience to God, just as Jesus was called to suffer and die in obedience to God. Ignatius too was set on a course that would result in his death and he didnt want fellow Christians to derail Gods plan and purposes for him.
Next I have to see how the scripture and what I have found in it relates to us today. What does all this talk of dying to win the prize mean to 21st century American Christians? Who is dying for their faith today? Well, the answer to that would take longer than we have this morning. More Christians were killed for there faith in the 20th century than in the previous 19 centuries of Christianity and the 21st century is looking worse, not better.
Christians in China meet in hiding to celebrate the Lords Day in house churches. Christians in the Sudan are listening out for the sound of the bombers that are dropping a million dollars of bombs a day in a war to wipe out the non-Muslims in that country. Throughout a band that wraps primarily around the middle of the globe Christians are threatened, tortured and killed for their faith. Communism, Nationalism, and Islamic Fundamentalism have led to an increase in the persecution of Christians. Again and again, Christians are being called to run a race whose prize lies on the other side of torturing and death. Their faith is more precious to them than their own lives.
Digging deeper, I found one example of the many Christians suffering for their faith. Making a larger problem or concern real is important to me as I preach. I found some details through the group, The Voice of the Martyrs.
In 1998, the Southeast Asian country of Laos labeled Christians as state enemy number one. Christians represent just two percent of the population of Laos, but the communist government there has created a program to completely eradicate Christianity from their country. Suspected Christians are called on to sign a lengthy document resigning them from the foreign religion, into which the enemy has enticed them. The Christians must renounce their faith, confess faith in the Party alone, or face imprisonment and torture.
One Laotian church leader, the 46-year-old Pa Tood, has been held in prison for more than a year. Deep inside the prison, Pa Tood never sees the light of day. A high-ranking leader from his own village offered to get Pa Tood out if he would just renounce his faith in Jesus. Pa Tood said, If I wanted to give up my faith, I wouldnt be here. For this refusal they confined Pa Tood to stocks 24 hours a day and cut his food rations way back. As we gather here this morning, wondering what race God has for us to run, Pa Tood sits in stocks in the darkness of Savannakhet Prison praying for the strength to go on.
Pa Tood is just one of the thousands and thousands of Christians around the world for whom the life-giving Gospel of Jesus Christ means torture and death. They look beyond their current circumstances to see the goal that lies ahead. They run the race God has set for them, clinging fast to their faith.
Now is where I make the turn toward home. For anyone watching their watch, that means I am almost done. For me, a sermon should take the scripture for the week and give us something for the week ahead. What does this passage have to do for us here and now?
This week, I see two things. First, I dont think it is fair to tell you about a problem without giving you something to do about it. I have a handout for anyone who would like to write to the Laotian Government on behalf of the Christians there. Its pretty fun really. The handout has some words in Laotian to the communist leader Nouhak Phoumsavan. They say, There is a God, and he loves you. Jesus Christ died for you. The Christians in America and Laos are praying for you, that God will reveal His love to you and touch your heart. Get a card. Cut these words out and tape them inside with a stick of gum and mail them to the government in Laos. The gum ensures that some official will open it and see the note. I love this idea. The folks at Voice of the Martyrs say this, This is your opportunity to follow our commander, Jesus, and love your enemy. Reach out! This is not rational. It is Gospel! Your efforts will not be in vain.
What about the rest of it? What does this scripture mean to you this week? The truth is, I dont know. Each of us has our own call from God. It is not likely that we American Christians will be called to give our lives for our faith. But we do need to be attentive to the goal. This season of Lent is a time for examining your life. This weeks reading from Paul asks us to decide to look at our lives and decide what is the manure in our lives that we need to let go of and what is the prize we need to press on toward. What is the manure in your life? What is the goal? God only knows. So ask God. Be faithful to that call and you will find yourself in a race very different from the rat race the world has set for you.
King of Peace Episcopal Church + 6230 Laurel Island Parkway + Kingsland, Georgia 31548-2526