I'm going to depart from my normal practice of focusing on the Gospel reading this morning - because the set New Testament reading for today, from Philippians, is just bang-on to where I think we are heading as a congregation. In that reading, we heard Paul, writing to the Christians in Philippi, saying that he is pressing on towards the goal...for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Paul uses the metaphor of a journey to talk about his ongoing faith and trust in God.
In another existence, (while I was training to be a minister) I used to be a part-time Coach Driver. And I know that when my passengers put themselves in my hands, they were are content to leave the journey entirely up to me. They trusted that the coach driver knew where he was going – and that I wouldn’t get them stuck up some country lane! They trusted that my entire purpose, while they were on my coach, was to make the journey as enjoyable as possible for them.
Following God is a bit like that. When we say 'yes' to having faith in God, we give over control of the journey to God. We trust that God knows where he is going, and that the journey will be the most thrilling, the most fulfilling, the most meaningful journey that it can be...simply because it is God's journey, not ours.
And I think that we can look at our own life together, here in St Mark's as, somewhat of a journey too. But let's look at Paul's description of his own journey, first - and see how it might compare to ours...
Paul starts by reflecting on where he has come from. In the early verses of the reading, (verses 4 to 6) he describes how, in his younger days, he was the most religious Jew of his time. He had been circumcised on the correct day, he was a member of the people of Israel, a 'Hebrew born of Hebrews'. On top of that, he had become a Pharisee - a religious teacher - so he understood the Law of God in great detail, and as far as the law was concerned, considered himself blameless. And as for his commitment, well, he claimed, no-one had more religious zeal than him. He was a persecutor of the Church, who went around seeking out those he considered heretics, and having them stoned.
But let's see what happens next on Paul's journey of life. Paul describes how he encountered Christ - how he found that all his achievements as a religious leader counted for nothing compared to knowing Jesus. In verse 8, he describes all his previous achievements as 'rubbish'. At least, that’s what it says in our translation...although actually, the Greek word he used here was much fruitier than simple 'rubbish'. A direct translation would be something closer to dung...or a certain word beginning with 'sh' and ending in 't'!!
In other words, along his life's journey, Paul discovered that all his rules, regulations, assumptions, laws and religious practices didn't matter at all. All that religious stuff was just muck, dung, sshhhh…. Compared to the “surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord” (verse 8)
Here's something that must give us pause...something to make us wonder.
I'm sure that all of you, by now, have worked out that I do things a little differently than some of my priestly colleagues - especially up here in the Sanctuary. You might have noticed that I don't kiss the altar at the start of the service, like some people do. I don't wear a Cotta, or a cope - and I'm even happy to celebrate communion dressed only in a jacket and clerical collar, as I did during last month's baptism service. I'm sure that there are lots of little religious details that I don't do 'correctly'...and which, perhaps, some of you might have been a little perturbed by. Partly, that's because I come from a different tradition of the church...for many years I worshipped in churches where even wearing a cassock was highly suspect! So sometimes I do things differently simply because I don't know any better!
But the other reason that I don't do many of these things, is that I want to send a message...a clear message...that whether or not I bow at the right time, or kiss the altar, or wear the right clothes...all these things are just traditions, religious practices. They have nothing to do with the heart of what it means to be a Christian. Nothing at all.
They may, of course, be helpful for some people. For some people - perhaps some of you - the drama of worship is very important. It helps people to move beyond the day-to-day ordinariness of life, and to gain a glimpse of a different reality...the reality of heaven. And that's great. If it helps you for me to do some of these things from time to time...then I'm delighted to do them. We will, for example, probably use incense during major festivals of the church's year. I don't mind wearing robes during most services - if it helps you to put aside questions of fashion, and to be able to focus instead on worshipping God.
But I do ask you to remember, that none of these religious practices are what Christianity is ultimately about.
I honestly believe that Jesus doesn't care one jot about whether we bow, or raise our hands at the right places. Jesus doesn't care whether we are wearing the right colour for the season, or whether we light candles, ring bells, or swing incense - or whether we don't. Jesus doesn't care whether we stand or sit at the right places.
No, what Jesus cares about is whether, like Paul, we are journeying towards his heart. Jesus cares about whether we are discovering more and more of what it means to live 'in Him' (as Paul says in verse 9) - letting his love and compassion, his mercy and forgiveness, his heart for the poor and the oppressed flow through us, and into our neighbours and friends. Jesus cares about whether we are willing to engage with his radical message of love and generosity. Jesus cares about whether we are willing to die to self, and be raised to the new life - the resurrection life - that God offers to all of humanity.
What does that mean in practice? Well, for a start, as we sang in our opening hymn, it means counting our richest earthly gains as loss – or rubbish, or dung (in St Paul’s words!) It means surrendering our human perspective on life to the Divine perspective. And that's a radical idea...
It means ceasing to regard ourselves as consumers, whose only purpose in life is to get up, work, make money, spend money, and go back to bed. It means ceasing to regard ourselves as individuals who have the right to exploit others just so that we can pursue our own narrow definition of happiness. It means instead learning to see ourselves as God sees us - as members of a community...as people who are inextricably linked to one another...as people whose actions have consequences for all those around us. It means seeing ourselves as people who are called to love our neighbour, and to let the love of Jesus flow through us. It means seeing ourselves as those who are called to be salt and light to the community around us...calling others into our common life with God, inviting them, with us, to learn to live life to the full. (John 10:10)
I'm sure that all of you are ready, in theory, to embrace this radical call. But, I imagine, many of you are wondering what that means in practice. And do you know what...? I don't know! I can't answer that for you.
Perhaps God will call you to do more within the life of the church...to serve in the community cafe, or the monthly table top sale, or to get involved with flower rotas, or singing in the choir, or serving on the PCC, or writing for the parish magazine, or wielding a paint-brush - all activities that help us all to be effective in reaching out the community. Perhaps, if you are already horribly busy with work and family it might mean God calling you to give more money to sustain our work...to oil the wheels so that we can truly tell God's story beyond these walls. Perhaps God might call you to radically change the path of your life...to embrace a change in career, or perhaps even a calling to a new vocation within the church. Perhaps God will call you to a renewed commitment to prayer and study - like those he has called to take part in the Journey of Life group starting in November.
I don't know. I can't tell you - because God will call each of us to something that is unique, and yet which is vital for the life of the whole community.
What I encourage you to do, however, is precisely what St Paul did. Never give up “straining forward to what lies ahead” (verse 13). Let God be your coach-driver…let him safely steer you on as you learn to rely on his driving skills. God is the blueprint from which we were all made - in his image. God knows how we as human beings were built. He knows how to help us to suck the very marrow out of life…to ‘live life to the full’ (John 10:10). All we have to do is let him take the wheel!