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Philippians 3:17-4:1

There are many themes in this passage for the preacher/teacher to focus on.  I find myself drawn to three things in particular as I reflect on this powerful passage from Philippians.  These are the ideas of perfection, the power of example, and living as citizens of heaven.

For the exegetical work on this passage, I am indebted to Dean Fleming’s excellent commentary on Philippians.[1] If you don’t have a copy of it, I urge you to pick one up, not only for sermons and Bible studies but for personal devotion. It’s an outstand mix of historical and cultural background and ideas for application.

A Theology of Perfection and Imperfection First, there is the idea of perfection. In three weeks the lectionary goes back and picks up Philippians 3:4b through 14. Unfortunately, it skips verses 15 and 16 entirely. These verses are of particular interest for those of us within the Wesleyan-Holiness theological tradition. It is in these verses that Paul exhorts us to adopt a mature mindset.

In verse 15a Paul speaks of “All of us . . . who are mature” (NIV). The word that Paul uses for “mature” is the Greek word teleios. Many translations still translate this word as perfect. There are few words that cause more head scratching or skepticism in our contemporary context than the word perfect. We all have seen bumper stickers with the slogans: “Nobody’s Perfect.” “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” A few years back, the automobile company Lexus, adopted the slogan “the relentless pursuit of perfection. It’s one thing to talk about a perfectly designed car. It’s quite another to talk about human beings being perfect.

Even though no one less than John Wesley wrote and preached often on Christian perfection, should we still use the word perfect to describe the Christian life? I wholeheartedly affirm our theological tradition, but also believe that we will need to take some care to explain it in such a way that it is good news rather than bad news to our parishioners.

We can do this by talking about the different meanings of the word teleios. In our passage the NIV translates teleios as “mature.” In other places in Paul, it has the meaning of “spiritually whole” or “complete.”[2]

Wesley himself was very careful to define perfection as maturity in love rather than as sinless perfection. When he spoke of Christian perfection, he also very careful to say that it does not mean flawless behavior.

The word teleios can mean several things, including maturity, direction, completion, or wholeness. For the ancient philosopher Aristotle, perfection had to do with the purpose of something. For example, a pen can be used in many different ways. Even though its ultimate purpose is to write, a pen can also be used to open an envelope or pierce the top of a can. For Aristotle a pen is perfect when it writes.

When we think of perfection in this way, it’s easier to understand what Paul means by perfection. Perfection is fulfilling the purpose for which we were made. We were made to image the love of God to the world. We were created to be like Christ, to live lives of wholehearted love of God, neighbor, self, and all creation. Christlike holiness is our true purpose.

But what about those who feel imperfect? Consider the example of classroom desks. A classroom desk is often the recipient of scratches from students or notes written on it. Sometimes generations of gum are stuck underneath classroom desks. When classroom desks are around long enough, they accumulate all kinds of chips, dings, scratches, and gum deposits. Even though these desks are anything but flawless, they still fulfill their purpose. How? What is the purpose of a desk? It’s not to be without blemish, but to be sat on and used as a writing or typing surface. As long as a desk fulfills this purpose, no matter how many dings, scratches, or blemishes it may have, it can still be said to be perfect.

I also find it helpful to think of perfection in the sense of maturity, of something growing toward its designed purpose. In this sense an acorn can be perfect when it grows into an oak tree. The acorn is perfectly fulfilling its purpose. Oaks keep growing their entire lives. In the same way we are to keep growing in love. Perfection in this sense is never static or completed. It’s a never-ending growth in the love of God, our neighbor, ourselves, enemies, and all of creation. We are most like God—even perfect—when we fulfill the purpose for which we were created—which is to be like Jesus—who was merciful, compassionate, and loved his enemies to the end—even his own death. This is a very important Lenten message, indeed.

For many in our churches who suffer from an addiction to perfection or who were raised in homes where there were highly unrealistic expectations for behavior, the word perfection can bring shame rather than shed light on their path of following Christ. Not only will we want to unpack what Christian perfection is and isn’t, we may also want to talk about a theology of imperfection. This is not to excuse a lazy or sinful lifestyle, but to acknowledge those who are wounded among us. Richard Rohr’s book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life [3] has been very insightful for me personally in developing a theology of imperfection. Perhaps it will be helpful to you and your parishioners as well.

There are many in our churches who feel anything but perfect. It could be because of emotional, physical, sexual, or even spiritual abuse. They may have given up hope of ever being perfect. They will need a gentle, pastoral hand to gently invite them into the wholeness and healing of Christ.

The good news is that all of us can fulfill the purpose for which God has made us. Those with physical or mental disabilities can be perfect. No matter what our limitations may be, all of us by the healing grace of God can fill the purpose for which Christ has made us. Even though all of us have been wounded or disabled in one way, shape, or form, we can all reflect the love of Christ to the world.

It might also be helpful to mention Paul’s own “imperfection.” Think, for example of 2 Corinthians 4:7: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” We are cracked pots. We are limited and wounded. We all limp in some way. But yet the light of Christ shines through our imperfections.

In 2 Corinthians 12 Paul speaks of an unnamed thorn in his own flesh. Rather than being overcome by it, he has learned to allow the power of Christ to so live in him that he is able to proclaim, “But [God] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor. 12:9-10).

The Power of Example The second idea that jumps out to me in this passage is that of “examples to imitate.”[4] In verse 17 Paul urges us to follow him as he follows Christ. Asking others in our congregations to follow our example will likely come across as extremely arrogant. How can we put Paul’s words into practice in our day? Perhaps we can says some like, “Here’s the way I’m seeking to follow Christ here. Sometimes I get it right and other times not so much . . .”

Stories are excellent ways to share compelling examples of Christ followers from both the past and present. Here we can lift up those whose lives have mentored and tutored us. Who are some of our models that we can lift up to our congregations for them to follow? It can be someone we know personally, podcasts we listen to, or stories we hear on NPR or read in newspapers and books.

There is the relief worker who has given their life to working for a world in which “no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it” (Isaiah 64:19). And there is the medical doctor in Libya who labors in the midst of seemingly endless need, who keeps working so that there will no longer be an infant that dies in a few days (Isaiah 64:20).

Albert Schweitzer left the limelight of the university for the villages of Africa. Dag Hammarskjold kept landing his United Nations plane in dangerous, but needy troubled spots. Mother Teresa kept serving the outcasts of Kolkutta, not because of any grand ideas of success, but because of a vision for a world in which “they shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity” (Isaiah 64:23).

Think of the faithful teachers in our midst who love difficult to love kids with even more difficult to love parents. It’s important that we affirm their faithfulness by telling their story—including how they pour so many of their own personal resources into their kids.

Here are a few authors who inspire me to flesh out the hope of the gospel: Kate Bowler (Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved), Bill McKibben of 360.org, Jim Wallis (Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America), Shane Claiborne (Executing Grace), and Bryan Stephenson (Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption). These are people who tutor me, who challenge me to follow the Christ that Paul followed. I don’t always get it right, but by God’s grace I get up one more time than I fall down.

True Citizenship: Loyalty to Christ, not Ceasar The third theme in this passage is that of citizenship in heaven. The preacher/teacher will want to take some care to explain that Paul is not exhorting us to some kind of Christian escapism.[5] Rather, he is calling us to live cruciform lives empowered by the resurrected Christ. As Fleming notes, “The Philippians’ ultimate loyalty is not to Caesar, but to Christ, the true Savior and Lord.”[6]

Rather than calling us to abandon this world for the life to come, Paul is calling us to engage this life fully even as we imagine heaven come to earth. Christian hope is that one day every wrong will be set right and every tear will be dried and all suffering will be redeemed. But until that time we keep hoping, praying, loving, serving, and remain faithful.

When you’re tempted to think that your Christian citizenship is in vain, I encourage you to reflect on the following words of N. T. Wright who reminds us what true citizenship in heaven looks like in ordinary life:

. . . what you do in the Lord is not in vain. You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire. You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site. You are—strange though it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself—accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world. Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of art of music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings and for that matter one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world—all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make. That is the logic of the mission of God. God’s recreation of this wonderful world, which began with the resurrection of Jesus and continues mysteriously as God’s people live in the risen Christ and in the power of his Spirit, means that what we do in Christ and by the Spirit in the present is not wasted. It will last all the way into God’s new world. In fact, it will be enhanced there.[7]

 

[1] Dean Fleming, Philippians: A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 2009).

[2] Ibid., 193.

[3] Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011).

[4]See Fleming, 195ff.

[5] See Fleming, 208-9.

[6] Ibid., 200.

[7] N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 208-209.

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