Life’s life a road that you travel on
When there’s one day here and the next day gone
Sometimes you bend and sometimes you stand
Sometimes you turn your back to the wind.
The lyrics to Tom Cochrane’s famous song, “Life is a Highway” draw upon one of the most common metaphors for life, as a long and winding journey.
This image of life as a journey conveys so much of the reality of our existence in this world – long stretches of open road when the travelling is enjoyable and pleasant, twists and turns that come upon us unexpectedly, steep hills that need to be climbed, and pits and potholes that need to be avoided. As the journey unfolds, there are times of great energy and progress, and other times when we feel worn out and weary. There are times when storms come upon us that we have to persevere and endure, and other times when the sun shines brightly on our path and refreshing winds are at our back. It is a journey that requires us to pay attention and to seek guidance lest we make a wrong turn and find ourselves lost and unable to find our way back to the good path.
In our younger years, we sometimes think that the journey is going to be fairly straightforward and easy. Childhood and teenage years certainly have their challenges and struggles, but for so much of that portion of our lives, we suffer under the illusion of invincibility, infallibility, unimpeded progress, and immortality, and sometimes suspect that we will be able to make the journey without any great obstacles arising before us. No one really tells us what life is actually going to be like – but even if they do, we do not really have the wisdom to pay attention to what they are saying.
But then the twists come upon us – unfulfilled dreams, the loss of loved ones, career or vocational challenges, struggles in relationships, health concerns, interruptions in our employment, times of stress, of confusion and of frustration – and we suddenly realize, whether we like it or not, that the journey may not be as smooth and straightforward as we once thought.
Such times can be daunting, and profoundly difficult. They provoke questions within us – questions about life’s meaning and purpose, questions about God’s presence and power, questions about our priorities and hopes, questions about how we will find the strength to continue the journey, or whether it is even worth it, or whether we will ever find our way back to the right path.
It is interesting for us to realize that much of the biblical story describes people on journeys – the journey of Abraham and Sarah away from their homeland to a new land; the journey of the people of Israel through the wilderness to the Promised Land; the journey of the exiles to Babylon and back; the journey of individuals like Ruth and Jonah.
The New Testament continues this metaphor, including in the life of Jesus himself, particularly in the latter parts of his life as he made that long and fateful journey towards Jerusalem. Today’s reading from the Gospel of John is set on that journey, as Jesus stops in the house of his friends Lazarus, Martha and Mary. Mary breaks open a costly jar of perfume to anoint his feet – an act which Judas Iscariot criticizes for being wasteful, but which Jesus acknowledges as an act of devotion in light of and in anticipation of the fateful end of the journey that he was on. Jesus knew the destiny that his feet were carrying him toward, and Mary’s act was in preparation for the terrible event that would take place at the end of his journey.
But then, after the events that we will remember in a few weeks on Good Friday and Easter, the biblical story recounts the early journeys of Jesus’ friends and followers as they set out from Jerusalem to carry the good news of the resurrection to the very ends of the earth. The journeys of Peter, Paul, Timothy, and the other early evangelists and missionaries set the stage for the letters and stories of that early community which – at the time – was often known, simply, as “the way”.
Our reading from the Letter to the Philippians, in its own way, provides an inspiring and compelling perspective upon that journey.
The passage begins with a long list of Paul’s various abilities and accomplishments. “If anyone has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more.” Not exactly the most humble claim, but nonetheless quite defensible and realistic. “…circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the house of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; at to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” It is actually quite a fascinating self-description, as it roots Paul’s claims in his ethnic, cultural, religious, educational, vocational and professional accomplishments, setting himself up as someone whose credibility cannot be seriously questioned or disputed.
But nor does it minimize mistakes that he had made in the past. After all, to admit in a letter to a Christian community that one was a violent and zealous persecutor of the Church is to rather publicly admit one’s past mistakes as well as one’s past accomplishments.
But, as the passage unfolds, what is clear is this – Paul’s point in listing his past life, both the great accomplishments and the dreadful mistakes, was to refocus his readers’ attention on the new quest of his life, the new destination of his journey – that is, to come to know Christ. All these things have been part of my journey, he was saying, but they are past. None of them is all that important any more, for now my goal, my destination, my path, my longing, my desire, the point of my life is that – as he himself wrote, “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.” All that made me who I was, all the categories that I once fit into, all the accomplishments that I have achieved and all of the mistakes that I have made fall away in light of this new focus of my very being, this new goal of my life – to know Christ – even if it means walking into the presence and place of suffering – because I now know that the point of it all is to experience the power of the resurrection.
But even though Paul’s opening list of accomplishments and credentials may have sounded something less than humble, there was humility in his acknowledgement that he had not yet arrived at his intended destination, he had not yet accomplished that new goal, of fully knowing and sharing in the power of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. It was no longer about his accomplishments, his mistakes, his achievements, his failures. Rather, the new journey that he had embarked upon was not yet complete, but was the focus of his life.
“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. 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 toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Jesus Christ.”
And in that statement, there is great inspiration for each and every one of us.
Because, not unlike Paul, we can probably all make a list of accomplishments, achievements, mistakes and missteps on the journeys of our lives thus far. Baptized as an infant, raised in the church, a faithful and dedicated worshipper, a willing and committed volunteer in the ministries of the church; is that you?
Or has your journey been different? New to the faith, mysteriously intrigued by this person called Jesus, willing to go deeper, to ask more questions, perhaps even to be transformed by his invitation to come and follow him.
Or perhaps your journey has had its own twists and turns. Raised in the church, but grew indifferent to it, skeptical of the claims of faith, unsure of the claims of the church, perhaps even offended by the abuses of organized religion — yet still feeling some sense of unease about walking away from Christ altogether.
There are as many different journeys as there are people who sit in the pews of this church or any church. But what Paul was encouraging was this – whatever the past has been, for good or ill, do not dwell on it any longer. There is a greater invitation, a more wondrous mystery, a more powerful claim that rests upon your life. Like Paul, none of us have achieved the fullness of the calling yet. But that should be a reason for inspiration and rededication, not indifference and disinterest.
To paraphrase Paul, “not that any of us have already obtained this or have already reached the goal, but we are called to press on to make the goal of knowing Christ our own, because Christ Jesus has made us his own.
We are called to press on.
To press on in this wondrous journey towards fullness of life in Christ.
To press on through our doubts and despair.
To press on through our moments of frustration and discouragement.
To press on through our greatest accomplishments and through our most disastrous mistakes.
To press on when times are good, and when times are challenging.
To press on when the pathway before us seems clear and unobstructed, and when all that we can see is troubling twists and uncertain turns.
To press on in obedience to Christ, in devotion to him, in love for God and for all people – friend and enemy alike; to press on in seeking God’s ways, God’s reign, God’s kingdom, even when other powers and allegiances vie for our attention and for control of our lives.
To press on, even when the weight of life seems simply too much to bear.
To press on, all the while knowing – and being reminded in the strangest and most unexpected of ways – that we do not walk this journey alone. We walk it with one another, and with One who loves us, and calls us, and strengthens us and offers to guide us when we’re uncertain, to come and find us when we get lost, and to lead us through all of life’s joys and all of life’s sorrows, and even through life’s final and greatest enemy – that being death itself – so that we can know Christ as the power of his resurrection.
So we press on: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, we press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
May it be so,