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I Want to Know Christ

San Williams

October 2, 2011
Philippians 3:4b-14

10-02-2011 Sermon In my childhood, the all-important religious question was:  Do you know Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?  If you said you did, it meant you were saved and would go to heaven.  How this was accomplished was pretty cut and dried.  You had to walk down the aisle at the conclusion of some worship service or revival, tell the preacher that you were ready to make a personal decision for Jesus Christ.  He’d say a prayer about your sins being forgiven and he would rejoice that now Christ had come into your heart. That accomplished, you could now tell your friends that you knew Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior.  Let me say clearly that I don’t disparage any conversion experience or personal decision that turns a person toward Christ.   I was, however, surprised to hear the way Paul describes his relationship with Christ. Did you notice that Paul doesn’t say that he knows Christ?  What he says is that he wants to know Christ.  Just imagine.  Paul is arguably the number one disciple in the USA Today All-Time Discipleship Hall of Fame.  Yet instead of saying, “I know all about Jesus and all about God,” he says more modestly, “I want to know Christ.”  Today’s reading in Philippians has me asking: How do I describe my relationship to Christ?  And how do you?

Like Paul, my religious credentials are in good order.  As a child I was drawn to church, especially the evening vespers services that were held on Sunday nights.  We’d sing hymns by request, and the preacher would deliver a shorter-than-usual sermon.  The lights would be dimmed as the organ played softly and late afternoon sun streamed through stained glass windows. Everyone was invited to the altar for prayer.  I was drawn to that quiet time in the sanctuary and I looked forward to it.

One day, when I was around nine years old, my family was visiting my grandparents. My grandfather, a daily Bible reader put down his large print Bible, set his magnifying glass on top of it, hoisted me onto his lap and told me that I should consider becoming a preacher.  Later, I was president of my church youth group and chaplain of the high school student body.  In college, I was most drawn to religion classes. I was active in campus ministry, and my values and the direction of my life were formed by experiences in Africa, Mexico, and inner city ministries in Dallas.  Going to seminary after graduation was a no-brainer for me. Then, during my years at Union Seminary in New York, I was tutored as much by the ministries and people in the East Harlem Protestant Parish as by my theology classes.  Since then I’ve been privileged to pastor four congregations.  Yes, my record of active church life and Christian service is a long one.  Yet a church-centered life such as my own doesn’t mean that we have attained a genuine knowledge of Christ?

For example, do we know how to pray as he prayed?  Jesus rose early in the mornings to be alone with God.  He prayed in the wilderness for forty days.  So intimate was his communion with, and trust in, God that he addressed God the way a child addressed his father—as “Abba,” which is the equivalent of our “Daddy.” When Jesus prayed, the whole creation took a deep breath. Who among us knows how to pray like that?  Or again, do we know how to relate to others as Christ related to them?   Christ never walked by a person in want without stopping and addressing the person’s need.  So intense and pure was his love that, in his presence, the blind could see, the lame leap for joy, the sinner feel cleansed and whole. Have any of us ascended to the spiritual heights of Christ’s oneness with God, or approached the depths of his love, or matched the breadth of his compassion? Certainly Paul made no such claim. Even when speaking of the resurrection, he is tentative, saying, “…if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”  Notice that word somehow.  Paul can’t explain it. He isn’t even a hundred percent sure about it.  Paul is a passionate man, but he doesn’t exaggerate his faith. He refuses to claim he has graduated or, in any sense, arrived.

And maybe this is what faith in Christ is about. Not certainty.  Not full knowledge.  Rather, faith involves a straining forward, toward the goal of becoming like Christ.  Paul puts it like this:  “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.”   We know the doctrine of the resurrection:  “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried.  On the third day he rose from the dead…”  The doctrine is important, but Paul wants to know the power of Christ’s resurrection.  That is, he wants to know, in his own life, the radical hope that love is stronger than death and that, despite everything, love and peace and goodness will fill and transform the whole creation.  Paul clearly doesn’t claim to have the resurrection figured out, but the power of it gives meaning and direction to his life.   Furthermore, Paul wants to share in the suffering of Christ by becoming like him in his death.  What was Christ like in his death?  He was forgiving, even of his enemies:  “Lord, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”  He was obedient:  “Not my will, but thy will be done.”  And he was confident:  “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”  That’s the way I want to be in my death. Don’t you?

Alas, none of us has obtained this; none has reached such a goal. Yet we press on, as Paul did, to make this goal our own, because Christ Jesus has made us his own.   Paul is so passionate, so single-minded, and so ecstatic in his desire to know Christ because he is convinced that God in Christ has claimed and forgiven us, and that it is our destiny to become like him.

The 14th-century Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart, likened our relationship to God to fish who have been hooked.  God’s fisherman is Christ and the hook is the unconditional love that Christ casts to everyone.  “Nothing,” writes Eckhart, “makes you God’s own, or God yours, as much as this sweet bond. When one has found this way, he looks for no other.  To hang on this hook is to be so completely captured that feet and hands, and mouth and eyes, the heart, and all a man is and has. . . become God’s own…Whatever he does, whoever is caught by this hook, love does it, and love alone…”

Once hooked, as Paul was hooked, we want nothing more than to cling to that love and  to be to be drawn closer and closer toward the One who is love’s pure light.  The prize of which Paul speaks is not an object. It is an ever-deepening relationship with God and Christ.

Friends, there is so much that we don’t yet know. Many of us are uncertain about our beliefs, fragile in our faith, tentative in prayer, and put off by much of what passes for religion.  If that describes you, take heart.  You are not at faith’s end, but at its beginning.  It’s our desire to become like Christ that matters most. While I can’t explain faith, I do have a picture of it.  Faith looks like a congregation of people, all of whom have secret doubts and none who claim full knowledge. Yet because these seekers have been hooked by Christ’s invitation to join our lives to his, we stream to his Table, feasting on his heavenly food until finally, by God’s grace, we have become like him.  That was Paul’s goal.  It’s my goal.  And I know it is the goal of this congregation.