At Blanchard Warrenville tomorrow morning, we’ll be looking at Paul’s amazing challenge to the Philippian church in Philippians 3:7-14.  As a small, start-up church, we’ve had our fair share of challenges–as all start-ups do–to get moving in the same direction and focused clearly on our future together.  We’ve been stretched by significant leadership changes (Pastor John’s upcoming transition as our senior pastor notwithstanding…), along with people coming and going for all kinds of reasons, volunteer fatigue from the burden of wearing three or four hats to staff the various ministry needs required for our weekly worship gatherings, and the list goes on…

I think Paul’s letter from prison to the church in Philippi can really encourage us at Warrenville today.  Stuck in his chains in Rome, his firm confidence and conviction in the gospel of Jesus Christ is breathtaking, summarized no more succinctly than in the verse which powerfully captures the theme of the entire letter,

being confident of this, He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Phil. 1:6)

His imprisonment preventing Him from completing the missionary work God had called him to, ever-determined Paul affirms his affection for the Philippian church by reminding them that the Church is never dependent on people to complete the work, but Christ Himself.

He goes on in chapter 2 to encourage them to let “likemindedness” characterize their relationships with one another, led by the gracious, humility of Jesus Christ.  (2:1-18)

The crescendo of Paul’s confidence in Christ builds into chapter 3 as he powerfully refuses to claim any credit for any trophy or prize he could take pride in as “a Pharisee of Pharisees”, considering them all as a putrid, rank pile of manure, casting all the titles, power and accolades aside in exchange for the pursuit of knowing Christ.

With his vision set upon Christ and fully mindful of the incredible grace bestowed upon him, a murderer and persecutors of Christians, he forgets what’s behind him to strain with all his might for the finish line ahead of him…

I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

In remembering Paul’s words to the young Philippian church, I understand Jesus’ plan to meet treacherous Saul on the road to Damascus.  Just looking at his ruthless determination to fulfill Christ’s mission is so humbling, revealing my own lack of focus on my calling as a much-to-learn pastor of  a church start-up.  While Paul had a “thorn in the flesh”, my brain cancer and the fits & starts of helping a young church find its footing has nothing on the true nature of suffering.  There are many days I need to be reminded of the encouragement that Christ will not be denied–he will complete his work of making me and us like Christ.  When I want to belly-ache and complain because the race I’m on is just too hard to keep straining for the finish line, Paul’s words quiet my heart and still my tongue to remember that Jesus is trustworthy and will do what He says He will do.

It might seem funny to you, but in this stillness, I’m reminded of an old Steve Taylor song, which captures Paul’s sentiments in Philippians perfectly.  In “The Finish Line”, Taylor sets up a comparison of a runner in Christ’s race with two different outcomes, sort of like those books I used to read as a kid where you could choose the story’s path at the end of each chapter.  On the first path, the boy on the race starts strong, but gets distracted and tempted along the way only to become “deaf and joyless and full of it”.  On the second path, the boy stays focused, despite the odds and the “gilded gods” and falls into the arms of his Father at the finish line.  You can stream the song with lyrics on YouTube here.  As you listen and ponder your own race, which one are you?

I have faith that all of us, like Paul, can remember Christ’s sure promise to complete His work in us, dust ourselves off and strain for the finish line.