5th Sunday in Lent 2022c

Old Testament – Isaiah 43:16-21

New Testament – Philippians 3:4b-14

 

Eyes, Feet, and Hands 

 

INTRODUCTION: Just shy of 70 years ago on a cold and windy spring day Roger Bannister did something nearly everyone had thought was impossible. He ran a mile in under 4:00 minutes.

 

Until Bannister did it, breaking the four minute barrier in the mile was believed to be something beyond our ability. The human body, according to assorted physiologists, simply wasn’t designed to run that fast for that long. 

 

But in front of 3,000 spectators at a track in Oxford, England, Bannister did just that. With the aid of two other runners who served as pace setters, Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway, Bannister sprinted the last 200 yards of the race to finish in 3:59 completing what became known in the sports world as “The Miracle Mile.”

 

When reflecting on his achievement and the dramatic finish Bannister said, “It was only [after the finish line] that the real pain overtook me. I felt like an exploded flashlight with no will to live.” Given that Bannister had averaged just over 15 mph for 4:00 minutes, it’s easy to see why he might have felt that way. After all, what he did that day was an impressive display of endurance, courage, and strength.    

 

ONE: Well, we hear about such an amazing feat of endurance and it’s easy to see why the Apostle Paul loved to use running as a metaphor when it came to the topic of faith. For faith, just like running, requires its own kind of stamina, commitment, and resolve, doesn’t it? 

 

Yep, Paul seemed to intuitively understand that running was an apropos way of talking about faith because they both require a level of tenacity and endurance. And when it came to the Philippian congregation that Paul was writing his letter to, there was indeed much to be endured.

 

You see, the Philippian congregation really wasn’t all that different from a lot of churches today in that it was split wide open by conflict and deep divisions. Sure, it’s easy and only natural for us to romanticize those very first churches and imagine them as pure and holy places that were undefiled and free of tawdry human drama, but truth be told such idyllic notions about the early church are hardly based in reality. 

Churches, it turns out, have always fussed and argued with each other – including the ones started fresh on the heels of Jesus’ resurrection!

 

And while we tend to get embroiled in controversies over what hymnal should be used for worship services, the Philippian congregation liked to squabble over just how Jewish new followers of Jesus Christ needed to be. 

 

Some were pretty adamant new converts needed to be circumcised while others weren’t so sure. And then there were all those questions about kosher dietary laws. Once again, while some folks felt followers of Jesus needed to keep kosher food laws, others were hardly convinced that was a practice worth keeping.    

 

So in the midst of an in-house fight among the Philippians, Paul writes to the congregation to remind them that what matters most isn’t which hymnal is being used or what kind of food a person eats, but rather their common life together as redeemed followers of Jesus Christ.

 

With old friends and would-be neighbors glaring at each other from across the sanctuary, Paul writes to the Philippians to encourage them to set aside their differences so they can focus on what’s really important – running together the race of faith as a family.

 

TWO: Of course, a big part of Paul’s race of faith was to know Jesus Christ more and more with each passing day. 

 

And it wasn’t so much participating in assorted rites and rituals that meant the most to Paul, but rather having an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. 

 

And to know Christ for Paul is much more than just a warm feeling we get to have in our hearts. It’s also a way of behaving. To know Christ, in other words, also means to try our darndest to live like Christ.

 

It’s to participate in his life of sacrifice and service by literally doing the same thing with our own lives. Or as Paul puts it: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him…”

 

That’s why in chapter 2 of Philippians Paul can talk about the need for people to imitate Christ and to look not to their own interests but to the interests of others. In the same way that Christ lived a life of servant hood, so should his followers.

 

Because it’s through such a process, it’s through giving ourselves away just like Christ did, that we come to truly know him and who he was and is even now.  

 

The Spanish Carmelite Nun Teresa of Avila famously experienced assorted visions on and off throughout her lifetime. And in one of her most famous and powerful visions, she reportedly saw a seraph repeatedly driving a lance into her heart. 

 

Well, as you might imagine the experience was a formative one. In fact, the incident was so significant Teresa became convinced conforming one's life to Christ’s life was the point behind her vision. In the same way Christ had lived for others, Teresa, based on her vision, believed his followers were to do the same. Or as she famously wrote in one of her books: 

 

“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks [with] compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

Like Paul, Teresa also believed knowing Christ meant more than just a set of emotions. It also meant conforming one's life to his life.

   

THREE: Obviously though, some things are easier said than done. And although we might strive to live like Christ, that hardly means doing so is an easy thing.       

 

For Christ’s life of compassion and service and sacrifice, well, it’s hardly a good fit with our world, is it? Look, it doesn’t take a genius with an IQ of 170 to figure out that seeking to live like Christ might very easily mean we find ourselves in some pretty vulnerable and even scary situations.

 

No doubt about it, Christ’s forgiving and merciful ways can easily be a strange way to live given the sometimes dangerous and unsavory character of the world around us. And yet, again and again we are told by Paul (and even Jesus himself!) such is the nature of discipleship. It isn’t to simply have Jesus in our lives, but rather to get our lives more and more into his life.

 

Perhaps that helps explain why Paul is willing to openly confess his own struggles and failings when it comes to living a Christ-like life. 

After exhorting and encouraging the Philippians to get busy with the tough task of conforming their lives to Christ’s, Paul isn’t afraid or ashamed to let them know he is pretty sympathetic to their plight. Paul even admits as much. After going on about the need to know Christ by acting like him he confesses:

 

“Not that I have already obtained this or have reached such a goal; but I press on to make it my own…forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead. I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Jesus Christ.”

 

FOUR: No wonder the theologian Scott Bader-Saye likes to claim that courage, even now, is one of the most important virtues for people of faith to have. 

 

For to be courageous isn’t to simply deny or ignore feelings of fear or danger, but rather to still pursue the good despite those very feelings. “The courageous person recognizes danger,” says Bader-Saye, “but refuses to let fear get in the way of doing what is right, good, and necessary.”   

 

The famous radio host and storyteller John Henry Faulk used to tell of growing up in East Texas with his cousin Billy in the 1940s. As nine-year-olds, the two loved to play at being Texas Rangers. Roaming around on their stick horses and brandishing their toy six-shooters, the two would battle imaginary robbers, bandits, and other sorts of villainous characters.

 

Well, one day John Henry’s mother sent the two courageous rangers out to investigate a ruckus in the chicken coop. Bravely entering the coop, the two boys began peering into each of the nests to make sure everything was copacetic. 

 

Needless to say, when the two mock Rangers suddenly saw a black snake staring back at them from one of the nests, they suddenly lost much of their bravado. In fact, as John Henry Faulk liked to tell it, the two boys quickly added a new side entrance to the coop as they fled in a panic.

 

Later, while the two boys were nursing the bruises and scrapes caused by their quick exit, John Henry's mother wondered how the two bravest lawmen in all of East Texas could so easily allow their fear to get the better of them. "After all,” said John Henry’s Mother, “everybody knows a black snake can't hurt nobody." 

 

To which cousin Billy, still rubbing his bruises, reportedly replied, “Yes, Ma'am, black snakes can’t hurt nobody, but they sure can cause you to hurt yourself." 

 

And so it often goes with fear when we allow it to become disordered and excessive. It can cause harm to everybody - including even ourselves. No wonder courage is so important to our faith. 

 

CONCLUSION: Well, the life of discipleship is far from easy, is it? 

 

For living like Christ can seem so out of place in our world. All the more reason, I suppose, to keep at it. 

 

For it is with our eyes, that Christ looks with compassion on this world. It is with our feet that he walks to do good. And it is with our hands that he blesses.  

 

Now to the One who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen!