Philippians 3. 4b-14
There are a number of things I am passionate about and over a pint and packet of peanuts will wax lyrical over all sorts of things – Motorcycles, guitars, Star Trek, philosophy, real ale, music, movies, children, marriage – the list goes on and on; and so I do, as many people will tell you.
A couple of weeks ago we had our marriage preparation day, which we offer to all couples soon to marry in the Parish Churches of our Papworth Team. It was a good day, and it is always invigorating to see young (and not so young) people setting out on the journey of discovery that is marriage. These people are passionate about each other, and want the world to know it too.
But there is one thing that I hold deeply, believe strongly, and claim of supreme importance, but many people might not think I’m passionate about – and, much as I am ashamed to say it – that is my faith.
I wonder how many people would describe me as someone who is passionate about my faith? This is a rhetorical question, so please don’t take it as an opportunity to heckle or otherwise harass the Vicar. I wonder how many people would describe any of us as ‘passionate Christians’? Would even our friends and family do so?
I’m not trying to make any of us feel inadequate, or point the finger – but I find myself challenged by today’s scripture readings given for this Sunday. And I am challenged by the name traditionally given to this, the fifth Sunday in Lent, Passion Sunday.
Of course, the Passion referred to by the traditional name for today leads us towards thinking of the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ which we will consider in the coming weeks as we lead through Palm Sunday to Holy Week into Good Friday. But I as I was considering the Sermon for this week I remembered that a few years ago – on the fifth Sunday in Lent 2003 – we were talking about our Papworth Team Mission Statement; and especially about the part where we have pledged ourselves to ‘live our Christian lives with Passion’. I wondered where we have come since then. Our mission statement still stands, we still claim this as a mainstay of our shared Christian life in the thirteen villages,
Where is our passion?
I’m not saying that we don’t have any passion. Nor am I saying that to be passionate about our faith we have to be particularly demonstrative in an outward, gushing way. We are not all called to preach on street corners – actually with the quality of most soapbox preachers I’m not sure that anyone is called to preach on street corners. I must admit I rather like the idea of smouldering passion – but that’s probably because I read too much Victorian Poetry when I was in my teens!
But our passion for Christ should be real, it should be overwhelming, it should be something that colours every aspect of our life. As the body of Christ in this area we have committed ourselves to living our lives as Christians with passion.
If we think about the things which we hold dear, family, friends, experiences, talents, memories, motorbikes, whatever, is our passion for Jesus in any way like our passion for these things?
Our Gospel reading is the moving account of a woman whose passion for Christ causes her kneel before him and cover his feet with perfume, wiping them with her hair. In that moment she offers her gift to him, a costly gift, and demonstrates her commitment to Jesus. In many ways she offers herself to Christ, showing her complete devotion, and performing a great service of love to him.
Likewise we are called to offer ourselves to Christ- completely. In the letter the Romans St Paul talks of making every thought captive to Christ. Jesus himself says that our faith can not be half hearted, as in his summary of the law, which is recited most times at holy Communion, as he says ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, strength, soul and mind, and love your neighbour as yourself.’
And this challenge to live passionate, devoted lives is echoed and amplified by St Paul. Paul is someone who has allowed himself to be changed by God, to be made new, and he knows how easily things might have been different.
In our reading from his letter to the Philippians Paul lists all of the things that gave him status in the Jewish faith, he catalogues all the claims of family, religion, status, and personal choice that might so easily have kept him from Christ, and they make an impressive catalogue. All of his learning, all of his social and religious status might well have prevented him from truly seeing and being committed to Christ – but, through the grace of God, he does know Christ – and what flows through this passage is Paul’s overwhelming sense of joy and privilege in knowing Christ Jesus.
Paul’s devotion is complete, his commitment to Christ so strong that he says “…whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord”. His devotions springs from the fact that he recognises that no effort of his own, no goodness of his own, has brought him here. It is, from first to last, the work of God in Christ.
To be truly dedicated to Christ is to be willing to do whatever is necessary to truly live Christian lives. In the reading from Philippians St. Paul talks about sharing in the sufferings of Christ. Paul is not advocating that we embrace suffering as a discipline, or because it is good for us, or out of some vague piety, but because, whatever happens, we must not be parted from Christ. If clinging to Christ takes you through suffering and death, then, Paul proclaims with fierce joy, that is a small price to pay for the enormous privilege of belonging to Christ.
Lent should be a time when we face up to difficult questions – and there is no more difficult question than Jesus question to us ‘who do you say that I am?’ Do we say that he is our Lord and Saviour? Or do we see him as a good man with some good advice who has no real calling on our own lives and what we do? Are we passionate about our faith? Do we cling to Christ as Mary clung to him or consider all else loss because of Christ?
As Christians we must search ourselves constantly that we might understand the motivations of our own heart. Lent is a good time to reconsider our commitment and devotion to Christ so that we can follow the example of Mary and of St Paul. Perhaps then we can join with Paul in saying this, the last verse of this morning’s reading from Philippians:
“…forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead. I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”
I hope this will be the goal and prize of each one of us. I hope that we too will seek to live our Christian lives with passion