[Transcript of a sermon delivered August 21, 2016, at Plantation United Methodist Church]
Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world. It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. But even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you — and in the same way you also must be glad and rejoice with me.
I saw this video a few weeks ago, and was mesmerized. It’s not often you see an 86-year-old nun in a Nike ad! I have zero-point-zero interest in joining a convent or competing in an Ironman Race, but I still want to be like Sister Madonna Buder when I grow up. Don’t you? 86 years young, and with a zest for life that eclipses what people half her age have.
And she didn’t start running until she was 48 years old. A Catholic priest at a retreat suggested that Sister Madonna begin physical training as a discipline for body, mind, and spirit. So she did, that very day. And that is where it began.
Four years later she tackled her first triathlon: swimming, biking, and running. Then her first Ironman at 55. Swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles, and then running a full marathon, 26.2 miles. At the age of 86, she has completed over 340 triathlons, including 45 Ironman races around the world.
Aren’t you exhausted just thinking about it?
‘Cause I sure am!
The sheer amount of energy, time, effort, discomfort, and discipline that goes into an undertaking like that: it’s an amazing feat! And a phenomenal commitment.
We’re in the third week of our Finding Light in the Darkness series, as we explore Paul’s beautiful letter to the church in Philippi. In our scripture for today, Paul likens his work with the Philippian church to running a race, saying in verse 16, “It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.”
Running a race, with its long-term, up-front preparation and investment.
But… then there’s this phrase, which has been troubling to generations of Christians trying to figure out exactly how this whole “salvation” thing functions:
Philippians 2:12-13: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
to a conclusion
Paul is not telling us here in these verses that we need to work really, really, really hard to earn our salvation, to win God’s forgiveness and approval and love. There is no need! God has already offered all that to us, no strings attached.
What Paul is saying is that we are to take what we have been given in that relationship with God and work at deepening it, strengthening it, working down to that conclusion of perfect connection.
Let’s look at verse 12 in another version, the New Living Translation:
“Work hard to show the results of your salvation,
obeying God with deep reverence and fear.”
While that is not a word-for-word, direct translation of the Greek, I think it is very close to Paul’s original intention. Work hard — not to earn your salvation, because you already have it as a free gift from God — but work hard to demonstrate what that salvation means in your life.
What Paul, in essence, is talking about here is what John Wesley would eventually call “sanctifying grace.”
Wesley was the minister in England who began the Christian movement which eventually became The United Methodist Church. When he considered how God’s love works in our lives, he spoke of three types of grace: prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying.
Prevenient grace is God’s love at work in our lives before we even know of our need for God. It’s those small nudges we receive, those feelings that something is missing, that there must be something more to life. It’s God drawing us closer.
Justifying grace is our acceptance of God’s love and forgiveness. It’s a grace that changes the trajectory of our lives and our eternity.
Then there’s sanctifying grace. When we’ve accepted God’s love and have decided to follow Christ’s path, we’re not automatically *snap!* made perfect. (Or maybe you were, but I sure wasn’t.) As our relationship with God matures and deepens, we learn more and more to live as Jesus lived.
Growing into our faith is a process.
A long one.
It’s a slogging along,
gutting it out
marathon to beat all marathons.
It is our life-long Ironman Race.
Sounds exhausting, doesn’t it? So why do it? If God already has forgiven us, already loves us, why do all that hard work?
When I was 18, I had the opportunity to visit Vatican City in Rome, Italy with my classmates. At that age, I definitely didn’t have the full appreciation for the tour that I would now, but I was still pretty amazed by the art in the Sistine Chapel. I was especially taken with the panel of God and Adam, close to the center of the ceiling.
In the left half of that section, we see Adam lounging on a hillside, legs sprawled in front of him, leaning rather lazily back, with his arm loosely resting on his knee.
The other half of the painting depicts God, whose whole body is straining toward Adam, with his hand reaching out to touch his creation.
This is what kills me about the picture. If you zoom in on Adam and God’s hands, you can see that God is reaching out, and all Adam has to do to be in direct contact with God is to lift his finger. Literally. Look at the space between the fingertips here. If he would just lift his finger.
Make a little effort. Seriously Adam! We human beings, we tend to be path-of-least-resistance kind of people. We like to take the easy way, avoiding the tough paths that require extra effort from us. But this relationship with God, it’s a partnership. God offers us freedom and power and hope, but it’s up to us to take it and run with it. It’s up to us to do the work involved in making it an intrinsic part of our lives.
That is what katergázomai is all about: “working down to a conclusion.” We are called to work out our salvation with awe of and respect for God, as we internalize God’s love and grace and principles until we come to the point where God’s love and grace and principles are ours.
We are called to lift our finger, our hands. We’re called to reach out with everything that is in us — heart and soul and mind and strength — reaching out to the God who is already reaching out to us.
That is the great work of our lives!
So, how exactly do we do this? How do we run this race, how do we stretch our faith muscles, preparing ourselves for the marathon of life with God?
Just like Sister Madonna training for a race, we train ourselves spiritually. By worshipping together! By sharing our faith with each other, by wrestling together with tough questions that don’t have easy answers. By reading scripture and discussing it with our friends and fellow church members. By taking Communion together and remembering both God’s past acts and future promises. By serving people in need, stepping away from our own needs and focusing on others.
Philippians 2:17-18: “But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. So you too should be glad and rejoice with me.”
Right there is why all we’ve talked about this morning so far matters. It’s what makes the work of living out our faith worth it. All of this is what makes praise possible, even in midst of difficult times. That training, that preparatory discipline is what helps us to find light in the darkness.
Paul, writing to the Philippians from that uncomfortable jail cell, knows that one possible outcome of his trial will be execution. He’s facing death. And yet he rejoices!
“But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. So you too should be glad and rejoice with me.”
That is a seriously weird thing to say.
Even if I am killed, it has been worth it because of your faith. I am rejoicing, and you should be, too!
That kind of hope is only possible when we’ve already developed our faith muscles through long-time training and preparation.
I’ve been blessed to work with many fabulous, brilliant people in my life. One of these people is my friend Jason Micheli. He and I served together as pastors in my church in the DC area. An incredible, cutting wit. He’s one of the most well-read, thoughtful theologians I’ve ever encountered. He was famous all throughout that community as the pastor who ran many, many miles each week in way-too-tiny running shorts.
In mid-February 2015, Jason, our senior pastor Dennis, and I were talking about our upcoming sermon series, when Jason announced that he had a doctor’s appointment later that day. He’d been experiencing some discomfort, and just wanted to get it checked out.
Over the next few days, we learned that Jason had a late-stage, extremely aggressive blood cancer. So aggressive, in fact, that he was immediately taken out of work and put into an equally aggressive regimen of cancer treatment.
That next year of his life was hellish. No other way to describe it. Although he did describe it — in detail — in his blog, TamedCynic. Whenever he felt well enough, he would post a message with bone-jarringly blunt words about what was happening to him, and what the experience was doing to his faith.*
Now, his is not a blog for which I would give a blanket, everyone-should-read-this recommendation, as his writing is, frankly, difficult for many to read. If you’re offended by language that sometimes sounds like it would be at home in a truck stop, TamedCynic probably isn’t for you!
But it amazed me to watch how the faith he had worked so hard to understand and flesh out over the years had prepared him to face this horrible situation with both deep grace and brutal honesty.
Jason, now, one year later, back working at the church, writes: “Tears, and the suffering that provokes them, can in fact bring us closer to God by leaving us no other options but turning to God. But tears and suffering cannot fetter us to God. Only joy can bind us fully to the God who is most infallibly Joy.”
When we — like Sister Madonna, like Jason, like so many Christians before us — when we invest in the most important preparation of our lives, then we can find joy and gratitude and praise, even in the most difficult of circumstances.
Then we will be able, as Paul says in Philippians 2:15: “to shine like stars in the world.”
When together we engage in the challenging, but beautiful, life-transforming work of deepening our faith, then we can sing out praises to God.
Then we will find light in the darkness.
* Jason’s blog is TamedCynic. He also has a book coming out in a few months about his experience. It’s available now on amazon for pre-order: Cancer Is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Cancer