Sermon published by Pastor Joel Pukallus
Bible Reading: Phil 3:12-14
12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
So what is the goal of the Christian faith? It seems like it is so much easier for an athlete! Years of single-minded dedication and diamond-hard focus all for that one moment where a medal is placed around their neck and they hear their nation’s anthem. It might take 2 minutes at most. But that is what it is all about.
What about us as Christians, what is the goal of our faith? Do we have a finish line or an end point we want to reach? And what is the prize? Is it heaven, eternal life, God himself, is he the prize?
If you had asked me a week or so ago, I might have said heaven, or eternal life, or lots of different things are the goal or the prize, and these all have a lot of overlap, and they have all been mentioned by those poor people who I hit up on the spur of the moment and gave them no chance to sit and think about their answers.
But I am amazed at the breadth of the answers I received! They were all different, every single one!
Some focussed just on the life to come, about our personal relationship with God, what I would call the vertical element of our faith, and some focussed more on letting others know about God in this life, so on the horizontal elements of our faith, and some had one flowing out of the other. Eternal life, forgiveness of sins, the great commission, all important things, but what it DID serve to do, was to show me that the goal of the Christian Faith is perhaps not as clear-cut as it is for an athlete.
In a race you run on towards the goal, so you can win the prize. And when you can see the finish line, what a difference it makes! Tired limbs get strong again, pain is forgotten as your pace picks up.
I was once on a year 9 camp as School Pastor, where the kids needed to canoe a long way, and the grumbling was amazing: “I’m tired, I’m sore. How much further is it?” The teachers on camp and I started calling it: “Toughen up Princess” camp. And after 10klms on foot, hiking and carrying our tents, and 20klm on mountain bike, we canoed along through this saltwater creek and out into a lake (up behind the Sunshine coast), and that made it worse because the kids could see a long way on the lake, and home wasn’t in what they could see.
But then eventually, we rounded a point, and they could see the camp-site. The end of their arduous journey (It wasn’t really that arduous, but I guess for a year 9 student who might not do a lot of exercise, it was.) And all of a sudden the grumbling dried up, and the backs bent harder and deeper into every stroke, and the pace picked up so much, it was amazing. Their eyes were fixed firmly on that beach at the camp, (which was their goal) , and they would not look away until the canoes slid up the sand. And there was hot food and hot showers and comfort (which was of course, their prize)
Having a goal, a finish line, something to focus on makes all the difference.
So what do we focus on? We can’t see heaven now from here, can we? We can’t see God, we don’t know what Jesus looked like. What do we look to? What is our goal? What is our prize? And many people I think would tell us that it is heaven, and eternal life. That eternal life is the prize. And I think we sometimes mix the two up.
But Paul in this letter to the Philippians, doesn’t seem to talk that way. Heaven may be the goal for Paul, but it does not seem to be the prize. If we look at verse 14, he says: 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
So God has called him heavenward to win the prize, but he doesn’t talk like Heaven itself is his prize. It may be the goal, but there is something more, and this is for good reason.
So often we talk about heaven itself like it is the prize of the faith. But if we unpack that, it is like saying that we believe in God, so that we can get his stuff. He gives us a reward for believing in him, like a cookie for doing the right thing.
But what is heaven? What are some definitions of heaven? Is it a physical place? No, it is by its very nature outside of space and time.
My best way of understanding heaven is to say that for me it is to be in the presence of my God, for ever. But it will only be heaven for a believer BECAUSE GOD IS THERE. Otherwise, eternal life would be an unending curse, immortality itself, without God, would be a torture that literally never ends.
So when people ask what heaven will be like, and concentrate all their energy there, it is the wrong place. Heaven is a means to an end.
And what is the end? What is the prize? Not a gold medal ceremony and a 2 minute moment of glory, but it is God! God is the prize we are seeking. There we will know him perfectly. No more looking through a glass darkly, or an imperfect reflection as in a mirror, as St. Paul says. Then we will know him fully, even as we are fully known!
Bishop Mark used the words of “Falling in love with God” through Jesus. A wonderful image. A relationship ever unfolding.
If we think of what the goal and the prize are of a marriage relationship, we
do not fall in love with and then marry someone so we can get their stuff! We marry them so that we can get them! All of who it means to be them?
I wonder sometimes if we sometimes do treat God that way though. Are we in a relationship with him so that we can get his stuff? Do we think once we have eternal life God won’t matter any more? Like he is a get-out-of-hell-free card, and we can discard him then?
For a Christian, God himself is the prize. Our forefathers maybe had a little better idea of this than us, and they spent a lot more time on the relationship than perhaps we do. They went where they knew they could find out about him and spent time there, in other words, they were more into their bibles than I think we are today.
But that is where we know he is to be found. Do you want focus and to think about what the prize is for your race of faith? It is not in where you are going. It is in who you are going to.
And you know what I find even better? That in God’s great plan, with everything that he knows and possesses and is, you and I are his prize. The prize he fought so hard to win. The cross of Jesus and the empty tomb show us just how much he was willing to give, just how hard he was willing to fight, to win you and me to himself.
This is our goal: Seek ye first the kingdom of God. Or maybe if I may be able to slightly paraphrase: Seek ye first God, and his righteousness. And all these other things will be added unto you as well.
Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.