In the Jewish, rabbinic tradition, they have a description for the way they reflect, or meditate, on the scriptures. They call it ‘turning the gem.’ They said the scriptures were like a precious stone with 70 faces. Each time you turned it over you would encounter something new, something different.
In a sense that’s what we’ve been doing over the last few months… with just five words.
I want to know Christ.
That phrase crops up twice in our reading from Philippians this morning.
In verse 10 Paul says I want to know Christ. Yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so somehow attaining to the resurrection of the dead.
Just a couple of verses earlier he has said I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.
We’ve not done it 70 times, but over the last few months, on Sundays, at church meetings, at deacons’ meetings, these words have been at the background of pretty much every reflection and sermon I’ve shared with you, even if the actual words have not been read.
At the heart of the Christian faith is the belief that we are made for relationship with God. We have a God who lovingly created us and longs for relationship with us. Down through the ages, in many ways God has been reaching out to us, revealing himself to us, inviting us into relationship.
But he has revealed himself most fully in his son, Jesus. That’s why Jesus came into the world.
Jesus said ‘I am the way, the truth and the life, no-one comes to the Father, except through me.’ Often those words are presented as a warning, as a really exclusive ‘choose me or God’ll get you.’
But that’s not how Jesus used them.
Jesus is saying if you want to know what God is like, look at him.
If you want to know what the kind of life God created us to live looks like, look at Jesus.
If you want to know God and enter into relationship with him, get to know Jesus.
Observe and learn from how Jesus relates to God.
We’ve explored this theme from a lot of different angles. We’ve considered ‘where’ we are to know Christ. We’ve spoken about him renewing our minds, stretching our imaginations, knowing him in our hearts. We’ve considered the importance of memory, of allowing the good God has brought into our lives to take root, in sustaining that relationship.
We’ve thought about the circumstances into which we can invite Christ: our loneliness, our anxiety, our self-doubt, our suffering.
We’ve looked at what Jesus says about himself, how Jesus describes himself. As the bread of life, light of the world, the true vine. We’ve observed his dealings with others, from the fishermen by the shore, to the Samaritan woman at the well. We have seen him deal with doubt in Thomas and failure in Peter.
We looked at how we grow in relationship and a couple of weeks ago I considered the question of how then shall we live. We are challenged to live differently.
This morning I want to wrap up this series by couple of last considerations. God invites us into living, personal relationship with himself through Jesus.
But do we need it?
Is it worth it?
And finally… does God consider us worth knowing? How can we know God wants it?
There’s no doubt Paul thought it was worth it. He says I consider everything a loss compared with knowing Christ. But to be fair we might argue ‘he would say that.’
But what is he talking about?
What is he comparing?
Last week I spoke to you of how the word religion is related to another English word: ligament. Just as ligaments exist to connect different parts of the body, so the purpose of re-lig-ion is to re-connect us, to put us back together again.
Which kind of suggests we’re not all together in the first place. The Christian worldview is that we live in this network of relationships: with God, with others, with our world, with ourselves. The scriptures has a word to describe when all these relationships are in good, healthy, working order.
It’s translated peace, but it means so much more than just an absence of trouble. It’s about everything that makes for our greatest good.
Shalom is about the deepest longings of our hearts.
However, shalom does not characterise the world. These relationships are all broken or damaged. We’re all part of it. We all mess up. We are, as the song I keep hearing on TV at the moment reminds me, only human after all.
The aim and purpose of good, true re-lig-ion is to heal these relationships;
to re-connect all these things,
to put us back together.
To restore us to shalom.
But of course, even if we admit this, we may not think we need to help to put it back together again. Faith they might say is fine for those not strong enough to take care of themselves. It’s a crutch for them. But give us enough time, will, money and effort there’s nothing we can’t sort. Why put our trust in some God, when we are perfectly capable of doing the job ourselves?
When Paul says those words on which we’ve been reflecting over the past few months, that’s the kind of thinking he’s been challenging.
I’m sure we’ve all encountered people from time to time who have no shortage of self-confidence. They boast about their prowess, how much money they can earn, their success, just how drop-dead gorgeous they are.
That’s not how most people see themselves. Many wonder just what they’re good for. People have more trouble even liking themselves than you might think. If you doubt it, just look at the rise of cosmetic surgery. Not that long ago that it was largely for the Hollywood stars and the very wealthy. Not any more. In 2015 50,000 people had cosmetic procedures. A few years ago psychologist James Dobson estimated that 80% of teenagers dislike how they look and are.
Paul argues that we can find shalom in the world.
It is within our reach.
But it’s not rooted in ourselves.
Instead it’s rooted in God’s love for us, in his plans for the world. In his longing to draw us into relationship with himself.
It’s not based on what we achieve, how good we become.
God has done all this required to set us right with himself in Jesus.
It’s not to be found by trying to make our own way, solving everything by ourselves, trusting in our own abilities and achievements. But by leaning on him trusting in what God has done to put us back together again.
In fact relying on ourselves, risks more than we realise. It’s harder to lay hold of something precious, if your hands are already full; when you’re clinging to what you already have and refuse to let go.
We can rely on ourselves.
But thing is, how will we know when we’ve done enough?
How will we know when we’re good enough?
Who do you compare yourself to?
I used to play a lot of table tennis. I was ok. I won a few tournaments as a teenager, although none of them were exactly of the highest standard. But for my level, I was pretty good. I did pretty well.
Then I was asked to play in another league. In one of my first matches I came up against the number 1 player in Ireland. Before we had even got through the warm up I knew I had nothing. And so it proved. He absolutely thrashed me. If I chose my competition well, I seemed so good, but I was not good enough in that environment.
And he was only the top player in Ireland. He was brilliant at our level, but if he stepped out of that and say, came across to the British mainland, he had the same experience I had against him.
How good is good enough?
Consider two children. One knows she is loved unconditionally. She knows what is expected of her. But her parents love her and support her whatever. There is nothing she can do, good or bad, that will change that. For she is already loved completely. If she messes up, she will still be loved, she will still be welcomed.
The other knows what’s expected of her, and knows that she is being watched to see if she lives up to it. Love and affection can be withdrawn or withheld. Acceptance is based on being good enough. So she tries and tries and she does live up to it. But she knows if she messes up she will never be allowed to forget it.
Which do you think is happier?
Which is freer?
Which child finds it easier to take risks?
Which has the better way of living?
Paul knew what he was talking about. He had been where the second child was. He knew what was required of him and did all he could to live up to it. He hoped it would lead to him discovering the life God created him to live. He hoped in doing it he would discover shalom.
And Paul was good at that life. He could say ‘if people want to play this game of how much they can do to please God, let’s see if they can compare with me…’
So Paul lists his credentials. His Jewish credentials were top notch. He was a Hebrew of Hebrews. He not only knew the Torah, which outlined the life God wanted them to live, he kept it… and how. If he had to decide how to apply a law to his life, he would choose the stricter end. Just to be sure. Better that than risk being wrong. He had no tolerance for those who challenged that way of seeing the world. We might not think that’s particularly commendable but Paul would have done.
His basic point is that if God was going to be pleased with anyone, it would have been him.
But Paul doesn’t play the game the way others would have. He’s not merely trying to show how good he was. All he’s saying is if anyone should have been capable of putting things right themselves, if anyone could have laid hold of the life God had for him, it was him.
But Paul had tried it and found it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
It’s as if Paul has in mind an accounting system. He presents on one side all the good stuff in his favour. All the advantages he had. Then he encountered Jesus, and found that in that relationship his whole system didn’t work. All the stuff he thought would help get closer to God and would help him put everything back together, was getting in the way. It was stopping him trusting in what God had done for him.
The picture being presented is not of Paul standing before God with a 99% on his exam paper, only to find God saying ‘sorry, but the pass mark is 100%.
Paul doesn’t say all those things he once cherished were rubbish. Paul valued each and every one of them. It was just he had found something that was better, more powerful, more effective, and all that stuff did not compare. Paul’s not comparing good and bad. He’s comparing good with the best.
I’m not a rubbish table tennis player. At least I wasn’t. But placed next to the Irish number 1, I didn’t half look it.
Paul looked at what he had, trusting to himself. Then he compared it with the intimate, trusting relationship God was offering him through Jesus, and Paul realised he had nothing.
But realised there was another way of being.
Another way of living.
Another way of discovering shalom.
And it began by realising he wasn’t just relying on his own abilities, on how own merits. It began with realising he was loved completely and unconditionally.
He didn’t have to get God on his side.
God was already there.
God was already at work reconciling all things,
restoring all things,
renewing all things,
healing all things
and he was invited to simply place himself in the flow of that.
And God was so much better at it than him.
It’s like the guys in the two parables of Jesus that we shared. It wasn’t that they had nothing. It seems that by the standards of this world at least they were people of means. Then they found something else and realised that what they had simply didn’t compare.
That’s not to say it isn’t without its costs or its challenges.
In the last few weeks we’ve had no shortage of people saying that they can satisfy all out hopes, dreams, aspirations, and we needn’t worry about the cost.
Jesus never made any such promise.
And the people to whom Paul wrote knew that. One of the main themes of Philippians is about keeping faith in difficult settings. Paul is writing the letter from prison. He is writing to a church that is facing persecution and hardship for sticking to their faith.
When Paul writes those words in verse 10, it would be good to be able to say he stopped it half way. To say I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.
Who wouldn’t want a bit of that?
There are no shortage of teachers happy to tell you that you can know that power in your life.
But far fewer will tell you how you discover it.
Paul doesn’t stop there. He knows there is only one pathway to resurrection. He adds to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so somehow attaining to the resurrection of the dead.
Paul doesn’t claim that the live he has taken on and in which he urges the Philippians (and us) to continue, is easy. Jesus himself had said ‘in the world you’ll have trouble’ and Paul knew it.
But he also knew that when he faced them, he wasn’t alone. That the same God who was at work in Jesus is at work in us, even in our trials.
In Gethsemane, Jesus had begged to be spared, but had faced all that lay ahead of him, trusting in God, and discovered that God wouldn’t let him down.
God was greater, more powerful than whatever he faced.
God could turn it for good, that God could bring new life out of it.
God would be able to hold him and nothing could separate him from God’s love.
In the world we will have trouble – no-one escapes.
But we have a choice.
We can choose to face it alone, trust in our own strength, our own abilities, our own merits, or we can enter into relationship with God, through Jesus, knowing that he is more than capable of keeping his promises.
It is a journey.
And it will last a lifetime.
Not even Paul claimed to have made it.
Yet the deeper we enter that relationship, the more we come to know Christ, the more we come to realise he is far more able of bringing shalom to our life than we are.
The deeper we enter that relationship, the more we realise we are loved totally unconditionally. Yes, at times we will mess up, but we don’t have to live in fear, because we’re loved unconditionally. Yes we’re called to live differently, but not out of fear of what God will do to us if we don’t. We can choose to live generously, to be truthful, to forgive and stop carrying around bitterness, we can be compassionate, we can seek peace in every situation, simply because in Jesus we come to see it’s a better way to live.
It’s the life God revealed to us in Jesus, a life lived in the awareness that in all things we are held in the hands of a loving God, who is worthy of our trust, and whose intentions for us are good. In his hands, whatever we face, we can know we are going to be ok.
But how can we know that?
Because in God’s eyes you are the treasure buried in the field.
You are the pearl of great price.
We often read these parables and see ourselves as the treasurer seekers and the pearl merchant. So the story becomes about what we have to do, what we have to give up.
It sounds good. Heroic even. And Jesus did say seek and you will find. He calls us to take up the cross to follow.
But Jesus never says that in the parables.
He merely says the Kingdom of heaven is like that.
And there is another side to that story.
Maybe the treasure seeker or the merchant is God himself.
The message of the Gospel is not about us seeking out God, so much as God seeking out us. Elsewhere, whether it’s lost sheep, coins or sons that are found, the description Jesus speaks of the joy of the find is God’s joy at finding us.
Jesus says this is how God works in the world. He seeks us and when he finds us he will do everything possible to draw us into relationship with himself. That was what he did in Christ. That is how we know that not only are we created for relationship with God, but God wants us to enter it.
For it was Jesus who gave up everything he had, so that he might once again be in relationship with us. That he might be able to take all the broken pieces and put us and all things back together again. Jesus who left behind all the glory and the power and emptied himself and became obedient even to death on the cross.
If you want to know how much God wants us to enter into relationship with him, we need only look at the outstretched hands of Jesus on the cross as he says ‘this much.’ The cross shows it’s not about how good we are, but that we are loved unconditionally.
We don’t have to get God on our side.
He’s already there.
That is how committed he is to restoring all that is wrong in the world.
That is how committed he is to shalom.
We are invited into relationship with God, intimate personal relationship with him, where we can know we are loved completely and nothing can take that love from us.
All he asks us to do is trust him.