Philippians 3: 4b – 14 Striving for Perfection October 3, 2021


Striving for Perfection
Philippians 3: 4b – 14

(preached on October 3, 2021)

Are you a perfectionist? In the garden, do you prune and pluck and spray till every plant is blossoming beautifully? In the kitchen, do you stir and whisk and saute till you can serve the most delicious dish? If you play an instrument, do you practice morning, noon, and night till every note is right? You know, if you strive for perfection, it can be satisfying to do something very well.

At the beginning of our passage for today, from his letter to the Philippians, the apostle Paul admits that he’s been striving for perfection all his life. He describes his background, “born an Israelite from the tribe of Benjamin. As far as the law goes, I was a Pharisee; as for zeal, I was a persecutor of the churches…I was beyond blame, a meticulous observer of everything in God’s law book” (Peterson and Barclay translations).

Paul’s credentials are impressive. Today, it would be like someone saying, “my ancestors came over on the Mayflower; I attended an Ivy League university where my grade point average was 4.0. After graduation, I was hired by one of the top 10 companies in the country.”

If you strive for perfection, you know there are rewards in reaching your highest potential. One man was convinced of those rewards. He had worked his way up to be CEO of a large corporation. He had also been happily married for years. One day, in the car with his wife, he couldn’t resist reminding her of his accomplishments.

They had pulled into a gas station and she had gone inside for a comfort stop. As he finished filling up the tank, the man noticed that she was chatting in a very friendly way with one of the station attendants. When she came back to the car, he asked her, “Who was that man you were talking to?”

“Oh, he was my boyfriend in high school,” she said.

A satisfied smile spread across the husband’s face. “Well, just think,” he said. “If you had married him, you’d be the wife of a gas station attendant instead of the wife of a CEO.”
The wife smiled back and replied, “Honey, if I had married him, he would be the CEO, and you’d be the gas station attendant!”

A lot of us strive for perfection. We want to achieve, to succeed. That’s what Paul wanted, too, and did it very well: he succeeded in everything he put his mind to.

But now that he knows Jesus Christ, everything has changed. No longer does he look to human standards of perfection. He says, “I consider that a bunch of garbage! Everything I once thought I had going for me I’ve thrown into the trash. All my accomplishments don’t amount to a hill of beans… compared to knowing Christ, everything else is insignificant.”

Paul had once followed religious laws to the letter. But one day, on the road to Damascus, he encountered the risen Christ, and felt the love of God that transcended all religious laws. That encounter changed his life completely. Now he travels all over the eastern Mediterranean, telling people of the loving God he had found in Christ. He tells them in person, and he tells them in letters to communities of Christians, like the new church in Philippi.

The new church in Philippi was made up of all sorts of people. People from different social classes, some of Asian background, some Greek. Some of them had grown up pagans, worshiping Roman gods; some had been Jews. When he wrote his letter, Paul was very concerned about the way they were practicing their faith. Their leaders were very legalistic. They insisted that new believers had to work their way into God’s graces by adhering rigorously to the law. They had to earn favor with God by dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s of every rule. They had to become the most fervent followers of God’s law they could be. They were striving to succeed by human standards.

Paul takes issue with this. He has no use for human standards of achievement or success. For him, following Jesus is not some kind of contest in which we strive to win a prize. The only prize worth winning is knowing Christ.

Paul has found in Christ the greatest prize of all. It’s a prize he never could have earned, no matter how hard he tried to follow each law to the letter. It’s a prize he could simply receive, by believing in God’s love in Jesus Christ. It’s a prize he simply received by opening himself to Christ and letting Christ work within him.
The same can be true for you and me. Christ wants to work in us. He wants to call forth from each of us the person God created us to be, with the very first breath we took. When we open ourselves to him, Christ can work within us. He can help us live to the fullest the lives God intends for us.

When Christ goes to work within us, it’s a little like the way the artist Michelangelo approached his work of sculpture. The story is told that Michelangelo once saw a lump of marble in a builder’s yard. The lump of marble was nothing much to look at. It was stained and misshapen. Obviously it had been rejected by the builders and cast aside.

But Michelangelo insisted that the lump of marble be taken to his studio. He said, “There’s an angel imprisoned in that marble and I can set it free!” (Leslie Weatherhead, quoted in Pulpit Resource, vol. 30, no. 4, p. 8). In a similar way, Christ can see in each of us the person God created us to be. When we open ourselves to him, Christ can set us free to become that person. No matter how rough we are, no matter how many scars we bear, no matter how full of faults we are, Christ sees in us the beautiful creation God made. Christ wants to work within us, so we can become the work of art God created us to be.

If we get to know him and let him know us, he strokes and chisels and polishes. In a thousand little ways, he shapes us. His hands free us, not to achieve human standards of perfection, but to live joyfully as beloved children of God. He frees us for the lives for which God created us; lives that resound with God’s holy purpose.





Rev. Elva Merry Pawle
Pentecost 19