Have you ever seen someone carrying a heavy load and wanted to help? Perhaps they are ambling along with too many bags and you rush alongside to lighten their load. We know what it’s like to be weighed down and we want to alleviate the burden others bear. This instinctual act of compassion is one of the fingerprints of God on our soul. It’s also a principle at work in Philippians chapter 3.
This past Sunday we reflected on Philippians 3:12-14:
“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. 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, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
In naming his heart’s desire, the Apostle Paul reminds us that his new passion and direction is in contrast to his former ways. “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead.” The Greek word for “forget” used here implies “overlooking,” or “a failure to notice.” What was behind Paul that he sought to no longer see? In Philippians 3:4-6 Paul tells us about his former focus. In a couple of verses Paul gives us a glimpse into his life before the grace of Christ turned his world upside down.
Prior to his experience on the road to Damascus, Paul’s career was skyrocketing. He was on track to assume one of the highest positions possible. From the very beginning, it seems like Paul was on the road to prestige and power. The Bible tells us that Paul was born to a devout Jewish family and by birthright, enjoyed Roman citizenship. Paul could navigate between cultures and was able to learn and benefit from both. He was raised in the city of Tarsus which was a prosperous coastal city known for its vibrant trade and its university. With confidence, Paul speaks of his Israelite heritage and proclaims the piety of his family. Paul didn’t take any of these advantages for granted but instead pushed himself to achieve and succeed. He got the finest education and had one of the most widely respected religious leaders as his mentor.
Paul would have seen his success as not only professional, but also spiritual. He was convinced that he was doing exactly what God would want him to do. Paul continued his family’s piety by meticulously following the letter of the law. Paul shouldered every task and commandment given to him. He carried it all. Paul appeared to have mastered life, right up until the moment when the master of light and life turned his world upside down.
The wild truth about Paul’s life is that he worked so hard to do everything right only to find that the burden of perfection led him astray. Following all of the social, cultural, and religious laws did not put him in line with what God was doing. On the contrary, it led him on a collision course with God. As a Pharisee, Paul would have believed that proper observance of the law would hasten the Day of the Lord. When a small sect of Jews began to proclaim that a rabbi, executed as a criminal, had returned to life as the Messiah, Paul was convinced that it couldn’t be true. Paul’s zealous efforts to crush a heretical sect may have won him approval of some religious leaders but it also put him at odds with love divine.
While on his way to harass and imprison follows of Jesus in Damascus, Paul encountered the risen Christ.
“As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Why do you persecute me?”
“Who are you, Lord?” he asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,”
At this point everything changed for Paul and he began to shed the heavy burdens of pride, power, and prestige that he had carried for so long. This experience informed Paul’s teaching, particularly in matters of devotion.
In the early days of the church, there were many questions about how to follow Christ. What should people do in order to follow the way of the resurrected savior? There were some who believed that in order to follow Jesus, who was a Jew, one had to follow Jewish laws and customs just as Jesus would have. For those males who were not born a Jew, this meant starting with circumcision. Paul refers to these teachers in Philippians 3:2 stating,
“Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh! For it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God…and have no confidence in the flesh”
These teachers had been through Philippi sharing their message of the necessity of Torah observance as a prerequisite for following Christ. Paul was incensed. In their teaching Paul heard the slippery slope that his life had taken. Paul was no longer convinced that any of us are justified by the spiritual laws we can maintain (be it 1 law or all 613 of them). Instead, Paul was convinced that the foundation of our lives is grace revealed through faith.  If the Philippians were going to take circumcision as the first requirement for God’s favor then where would it end? He feared that once they picked up that bag, they would be picking up the weight of perfectionism and self-justification for the rest of their journey.
Simply put, in Philippians 3 Paul is saying to his friends, “Don’t start down a path of self-justification. I’ve been down that road and its burdens are too much to bear. The good news of Jesus Christ is that we get to put down our burdens and take up love.”
It might not always be easy to navigate love’s call (the static dry laws of “do this” and “don’t do that” are tempting with their simplistic certainty). We know that love liberates. Love frees us from fear. Love empties us of ego. Love helps us breathe free and clear. Love rushes up to us and says, “let me take that weight from you.”
 Acts 9:1-22
 Ephesians 2:8-9
 As Christ said it in Matthew 11:28-30, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” To learn from Christ is to learn the way of love.
Reflection Questions: (“Two a day keeps the pastor away!”, wait, that doesn’t sound good)
- What part of Philippians 3:12-14 speaks to you?
- Paul encourages the ancient church to focus on Christ, what does it mean to “focus on Christ” for you?
“God of peace who breathes new life into the dying embers, breathe on us again. Great Shepherd who leads us to people and places that refresh us, lead us again. Holy Spirit that equips us for every good work, give us strength and sight again. We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.”