“This one thing I do: 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” (Phil. 3:13-14).
Today we’re at that point in Lent where there’s more behind us than there is ahead. Palm Sunday next week, and then Easter following. Two weeks: but still time to practice the disciplines of Lent; still time to exercise ourselves in prayer, fasting, and works of mercy. Still time to stretch our spiritual muscles. Still time to repent.
Some of us are at a similar point in life, where there’s more behind than there is before, though no one knows the precise schedule (thank God). But like our Lenten journey, for Christians there is always time for action, whatever our situation. There is still time for us to practice the Christian life; still time for us to follow Jesus; still time for us to become whoever it is that God calls us to be. In other words, now is the time for us to lean into the future that God is creating, and to walk through the door that he’s opening.
Our reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians finds the apostle conjuring with a similar juncture, between what’s behind and what’s before him; between what was and what will be. In the third chapter he considers himself in terms of who he is: “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Phil. 3:5-6). He considers himself in terms, not just of what he’s accomplished, but also of what he’s been born into: his privilege, if you will.
For St. Paul, all of this is worthless compared to what lies before him: “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ” (Phil. 3:7). Paul makes it clear that knowing Jesus Christ and being his disciple is of surpassing worth. It’s not an accomplishment or even a privilege that is possessed, though it certainly is a gift, like his membership in the People of Israel. For the apostle, knowing Jesus Christ and being found in him is still a goal that lies ahead. “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:10-11).
There is what is behind, and what is before him. Jesus is the One who calls him and opens the door into what’s ahead. “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Phil. 3:12). Jesus is the One who has claimed him and invited him forward. “Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: 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” (Phil. 3:13-14).
There is what is behind, and what is before him. This critical juncture between what was, and what lies ahead, is the time for Paul to stretch himself and to strain forward. It’s a time for action, a chance to answer the call. It’s a time, not to dwell on who he is or what he’s accomplished, but to consider what God wants to do with him for the future.
Notice that St. Paul is not talking about a future, endlessly deferred: what we might call “pie in the sky, by and by.” What’s got Paul exercised and excited is the possibility of action now. As he says, “I press on to make it my own” (Phil. 3:12). Don’t get me wrong: St. Paul is talking about a heavenly call, a goal that has not yet been reached. But he knows the importance of taking action in the present, of moving into the future, of acting now to claim the prize.
If it’s true for Paul, it’s true for us. Now, this Lent, is the time for us to stretch ourselves, to strain forward for what lies ahead, to press on to the prize. What has been set before us has never been about our dream or about our hope for the future, but about who God has called us to be in Jesus Christ our Lord. Here our confirmands are showing us the way, by their willingness to step forward into the future that God is creating for them.
We claim that future each time we come to the altar rail for Holy Communion, to receive the Body and Blood of Christ that is the means of life. We step into our identity in Christ each time we turn to God in prayer. We see the presence of Christ in each other in each act of service and ministry we extend to others in need. Each act of service and ministry moves us closer to the goal. Now is the time to forget what lies behind us, no matter how worthy it is, in order to stretch ourselves forward to what lies ahead.