“Press On”- A Letter of Joy
The Reverend Tasha Blackburn
August 20, 2017
Lots of people share a faith conversion story that is patterned after the apostle Paul. They share about how they were living a life of sin and then they were knocked to the ground and forced to set sin aside and chose Jesus instead. With great honesty and faithfulness we may have had a friend talk about how drink or drugs or violence or bitterness was drowning them until they gave it all up for a relationship with the Lord. It is an amazing thing to hear something like this and some in this room could stand and say that this pattern fits their life too.
As heartfelt as these conversions are, this is not how Paul saw his conversion. Yes, he was on his way to hurt Christians when he was thrown to the ground, blinded and heard Jesus call him to a new way of life. But, for Paul, that isn’t even the half of it. Here at the end of his life, he realizes he didn’t just need to turn away from terrible things, things that were drowning him, to turn toward Jesus. No. He also needed to turn away from what meant the most to him so that he could turn toward Jesus. He describes it like a ledger and he lists what was in his asset column: being circumcised, being one of God’s covenant people and from a beloved tribe, his years of study and service as a Pharisee, his adherence to all religious laws. Then he says this: “These things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ.”
Paul did not just give up terrible things for his faith. He also gave up some of the best parts of his life, his strengths, those things that he would list as assets on his life ledger. And he didn’t do it because they were bad things. It is not bad to be born Jewish or bad to study long and hard to be a religious leader. But none of these assets got him any closer to Jesus. So he writes them off. They are no longer assets, they are losses. He throws them out because of what has far greater worth for him: Jesus Christ. And, as he puts it: the goal of “knowing him.”
Why did he set aside his strengths to know Jesus? He explains that knowing Christ comes down to two things: first, acknowledging that Jesus is Lord and, second, patterning our life after him and his life. Of course our sin can get in that way of following his pattern, of conforming ourselves to him; but, the kicker is, so can our assets. Like Paul, our resume, our heritage, our DNA, they can get in the way of matching his pattern. They are not necessarily bad things but if they don’t get us any closer to Jesus then they are no longer assets. They are losses.
What a different conversion story that would be to hear! If a friend sat beside us and said, “I knew it was time to give up gambling so I could be a better steward of my money for the Lord. And I also have realized that raising my kids in our middle class neighborhood isn’t helping our faith and neither is the fact that everyone in town knows and respects my name. No,” the person would share, “I’m walking away from all that privilege because it’s not nearly as important to me as getting close to Jesus.” A different conversion, right? Hearing this we might think our friend was crazy, not converted.
It has been a hard week. It is hard to turn on the news and see images of such hate in our country. It is hard to see fighting in the streets. It is hard to grieve losses we cannot even fully understand. And it is hard to quite know what we should do or what we should say. Some would like to say this is a white issue and some would say it is a black issue. We could argue whether or not it is a Northern versus Southern issue or the coasts versus the nation’s midsection or the older generation versus the younger. It is none of these things; or, more specifically, it is probably all of these things and more.
But for us this is simple: it is a faith issue. It is a faith issue and we have a pattern we have to follow. We have to follow it because we want to know Jesus. That is worth more to us than any sin, and it is worth more to us than any asset/strength. We want to know him. If our heritage or our resume or our DNA don’t get us closer to him and his pattern then they have to be set aside.
And what pattern do we follow? The pattern we follow is the cross. Of course, following the cross means that, in whatever we do we want to look like Jesus but the pattern of the cross also means that we love God with everything we have, and we love our neighbor as we would want to be loved. Everything we do or say goes back to those two set seams of our set pattern.
This morning three people will be baptized in worship. As part of their baptism, they will have the sign of the cross marked on their foreheads and I will say, “Child of the covenant, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.” When you were baptized, the pastor probably literally marked the sign of the cross on you as well. And, if not literally, then they absolutely did sacramentally. The cross has been placed on you and it is a gift and an obligation. It means your pattern is set, its shape formed and its seams laid out straight and clear for you. Our faith offers great comfort and it demands renunciations. We cannot act any old way we would like. We cannot believe any old thing we’d like. We do not try to make this pattern fit us better. Our job is to press on, no matter what, to try to fit its shape and size and to follow its seams.
In junior high I must have thought being 13 wasn’t already hard enough because I decided to take a home economics class. We each sat at our own sewing machine as the teacher tried to show us how to follow a pattern, cut the pattern correctly and then sew the pattern. I remember one day: I was trying my hardest when the teacher stopped and stood over my shoulder, looking at my efforts. She yelled to the class, “Class, listen up! Tasha here sews like a drunken sailor!” She said that about my best efforts! Told everyone. And she was right. I did sew like a drunken sailor. I was trying but I could not keep to the pattern.
This happens without sewing machines too. You can begin a day with the absolute conviction that you do want to know Christ. You want to pattern your life on him. But then you find you keep the pattern about as well as a drunken sailor. Of course you do. And I do too. But take heart: Paul is certain that we can reach the goal, we can gain the prize, not because we will become so righteous but because Christ is righteous; not because we will always be faithful to his pattern but because he is faithful to us. This is hard work. This is not Faith 101 stuff here. It is definitely upper level. To turn from our sin is one thing; to turn from our strength is another. Even Paul says he is not perfect at it. But this upper level obligation began way back at our baptism. For you have been marked by Christ. When all is said and done, how well we keep to his pattern is the only thing that matters. Everything else—everything else—is a loss. Amen.