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The Exchange

(From the Second Lesson, Morning Prayer, Second Sunday after Easter: Phil. 3:7-16)

Paul speaks here of a great exchange.

Some of us have visited NY's stock exchange, or Chicago's Grain Exchange, and seen the dizzying flurry of frantic activity. Desperate shouts and gestures, enormous and instantaneous transfers of funds, reckless speculation and gambling, all of it filled with uncertainty, fueled by optimism and dependent upon luck. All of us have witnessed recently in these tumultuous financial times just how fickle the whole matter of value can be: that which is worth a lot one day is totally worthless the next. Men's lives and fortunes seem to rise and fall on the absolutely unpredictable nature of imparted value given to stocks, commodities, new ideas: here today, gone tomorrow, sometimes with a whole lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth. Baseball cards, Beanie Babies, Marvel Comics, bottle caps, and yes, little green pieces of paper with our first President's portrait: all have possessed tenuous, uncertain value. Exchange. The giving away of one thing in order to get another.

But what is Paul speaking of, here? Is the exchange he has made, and is advising us to make, a wise one? Can we trust His assessment of the value of what we are asked to part with, and what we will acquire as a result? What are you giving up, Paul? Why, all the glories of personal background, accomplishment, pedigree, and ancestry. Paul's conversion to Christ has reduced him to nothing and obligated him to begin all over again possessing only the righteousness which is from God by faith. In exchange for what he has lost, which he calls the loss of all things and which really would be considered everything by most people, he received the knowledge of Christ, the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His suffering.

Hmmm. So this is Paul's exchange.

For our purposes this morning, I'd like to examine briefly what he surrendered, and what he acquired, and hopes to acquire, as a consequence, and what the implications are for us. We will focus on one particular item he receives in the exchange that is of particular significance to all of us.

I. Paul's loss and our loss:

Paul has surrendered everything he possessed in the past. Is it possible that our failure to do likewise might be called “incomplete conversion”: the bringing along with us into our Christian life of some or all of the things that should have been discarded as “rubbish”? Some of what we must part with may even appear sacred, as was observing the Jewish Law to Paul. Could it be said that those Christians who have in a sense received their faith as an inheritance from previous generations, and never paid for it themselves, so to speak, might end up using their religion as a tool for self-justification, much as Paul did with the Law?

Will my church attendance save me?

Will strict adherence to religious tradition?

Will the virtue of a Christian upbringing, or of a multi-generational heritage of religious observance in my family and community?

How many of these things can easily degenerate into things taken for granted, in which genuine faith is no longer exercised, but has been supplanted by trust in the things themselves! How easily we revert to the Law for justification! It is easier to go through the motions of religion than to constantly monitor our own hearts to see if a living faith in God is at the center of our religious life.

Paul offers us here a very helpful way to gauge the validity of our Christianity. It is a little doorway with a sign on it that has repelled many because of a word written upon it in large, blood-red letters. It is the way we are all naturally inclined to avoid. It is of all things the most difficult to embrace, like hugging a porcupine. Of all experiences it is that which we most shun, as is evidenced all the way from the cries of a small, sick child whose mother is practically dragging off to the doctor for treatment, to the stalwart, manly captain of his own ship who knows he hasn't been feeling well, and puts off interminably the day of reckoning he fears from a trip to the hospital. It can be seen in the interruption of our professional plans by economic hardship and unemployment, and the deferment of long held hopes and dreams. Or when the onset of advancing years find us with a host of unrealized goals. Or in the knowledge that a decision to part company with a job, or a friendship, or an opportunity, or even lots of money, because of the constraints of a Christian conscience, will bring painful consequences. The stories are endless; the scenarios are without number. You have many, and so do I.

And what is written on this door that a gentle Hand seems to propel us toward, and in answer to our childlike resistance only makes the pressure our backs a little firmer?

It says “Suffering”: ...that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His suffering, being conformed to His ...death! His what?! His death. Suffering and conformity to Christ's death. Part of the exchange.

II. Suffering: Paul's gain and ours

But can't I have the power of His resurrection without the suffering and the death? Can't I? What do you think? What do we know of Christ's experience, having just been through Eastertide? Is their any way to the silence of the garden tomb,and the shout of resurrection that followed, without the confusion and disorder of the Cross? Can we expect to be laid to rest on the slope of some green hill, in expectation of rising again, without passing through our own desperate, painful Crosses? In this Kingdom of which we are now members, there is a bona fide sense in which all human suffering can be transformed into something purposeful according to the manner in which it is accepted and endured. Accepting affliction and difficulty with a gracious spirit, believing that its nature and degree are carefully monitored by God; trying hard to use its experience as a means of drawing closer to the One so closely identified with suffering; counting it as something we have been entrusted, not cursed, with; all of these change our troubles to blessings, the very same things which produce confusion, bitterness, perplexity, and resentment, when no faith is present. But there is also a higher order of suffering which even more intimately unites us to Christ: that which arises directly out of our identification with Him. Here is what Paul calls the loss of all things for the sake of Christ. Here is that state of things spoken to us in today's Epistle (1 St. Peter 2:19ff): ...when ye do well, and suffer for it, and take it patiently. Paul calls it being conformed to His death. What does this mean in every day, practical terms? -Husbands/wives dying to their own will for the sake of serving a spouse: dying to their own wishes, desires, wants, comforts, preferences --day by day, hour by hour, and attempting to make a lifestyle of it.

-Exercising this same deliberate posture in all our relationships: among families, friends, and in the community.

Dying to our studied opinions;
dying to our need to be right;
dying to our desire to be first and foremost;
putting aside our longing for notoriety and recognition;
giving away to others freely and graciously all that we would normally want to keep ourselves: praise, recognition, honor, opportunities for service, chances for success.

It should be noted that the vast majority of such acts don't involve public martyrdom! They will probably go unnoticed by all, including those for whom the sacrifice was made. We may even feel in our low seasons that God Himself hasn't seen them. But that, more often than not, is the voice of depression and despair, and not that of faith, which assures us that every noble death, whether large or small, will receive its requitement. As we look at the end of this passage, we might imagine seeing Paul, like a mountain climber who shed a huge, heavy backpack, suddenly freed up to ascend the remainder of his climb with freedom, joy, and purpose.

We too are called to set aside the things which don't matter --all of the heavy baggage that will encumber us if we insist on keeping it, filled with what we are urged to realize is just “rubbish”. And having dropped these things as quickly as possible (and, I must say with great emphasis, training ourselves to keep dropping them, as the tendency to reacquire them is always there)-- and having dropped them, we can now march on with lightness of step, with a ready smile, and with renewed determination and purpose to press on, that we may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of us..."forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, pressing toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus." Waiting for us at the very top is a resurrection like unto our Lord's.

And we shall find some day, by His grace, eternally transfigured, in a renewed condition, retooled for Heaven, sanctified by the Lord's blessing, all that we were willing to give up, and much more, besides.

This is an exchange worth every bit of the risk associated with it.

Faith is the key.

In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Holy Trinity Church, Waterville ME
Ed Kalish, Deacon

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