Press on: That’s the phrase that is driving us this week, and it is driving this whole series. Press on. The text begins with Paul’s idiosyncratic claim of self-promotion. “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more!” Yes, of course, he tosses this away in a few verses, but doesn’t it sometimes sound like he’s boasting about not boasting? Well, yes, it does sound like that, but listen closer, and you’ll hear what is actually an act of great humility.
His list in our text for today used to give him such joy, such a feeling of success, or power, or prestige. That’s what he’s saying here. The things that this world measures to let us know how we’re doing and where we stand in relation to everyone else—he had them. He still has them and isn’t above using them when it helps his cause (like his Roman citizenship that helps him in a tight spot). But, he argues, these things no longer mean anything to him. He counts them as loss. What the world sees as gain, he sees as loss. These things, these values, these privileges get in the way of where he wants to be going now. They get in the way of who he wants to be now.
He even gets coarser in his rejection of his former glory. “Skubalon” is the word he chooses, after using “loss” twice. “Skubalon” has stirred up some interesting debates over the centuries. Some argue, and most translations prefer, something tamer, like rubbish or garbage or refuse. Others argue that the word is better translated as excrement or dung. Still some want to suggest that this is a slang term, “locker room talk,” perhaps, that has been used as a swear word. What does it matter, however, and other than for the titillation factor, why would the preacher want to bring up all this tedious word study? Well, we certainly aren’t advocating for swearing during the sermon. But paying attention to the turnaround in Paul’s life is important for grasping this message.
Too often, we present the gospel as if it will only clean things up a little bit. Faith is just a way to be nicer or happier; it just works on the edges of our lives, the part we have room to add a little Jesus into. But Paul presents the life of faith as one of radical reorientation. Everything in the old life is not worth the time of day. Everything that this world considers important is now just . . . well, rubbish.
Now, here’s the tricky thing in this text; it sounds like an either/or, like a one day that, and the next day this. But it isn’t that neat. It isn’t that quick. That’s where pressing on comes from. That’s where “that I might gain Christ” figures in. Paul admits that he’s not there yet. There is too much of the old life that is hanging on. He still sees too much value in the rubbish.
That’s why he chooses most of the time to talk more about what is gained than what is lost. You’re thinking, “That doesn’t seem right; he’s always talking about the life of the flesh and how destructive it is.” And that’s true. But looking back, his real purpose is to talk about the surpassing value of knowing Jesus Christ. That’s what he’s heading; he wants to look beyond the rubbish; he wants to turn away from the excrement of his former life because he’s found something better.
Our proclamation is about that something better. We spend far too much time talking about what is wrong with the world, what we should avoid, what is broken. And there are times that we, like Paul, need to point out the rubbish so that we can begin to look beyond it. But if you analyze your sermons over the past year, or even the past few months, would you say the weight is on the rubbish or the surpassing value of knowing Christ? Often, we preachers are too good at diagnosis and too weak at resolution. We see the problem, but we don’t imagine the cure; we don’t cast the vision of the new life in as compelling a way.
Consider reading on for two more verses. It gives you a second two-word phrase that might help with resolution. If “press on” is the motivator, then “hold fast” is the descriptor. We are encouraged to press on, to move toward a more just society, to claim a better vision of the beloved community, to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. But we hold fast to that which will keep us on track, that which will define us. We need to hold fast so that we may press on. If we don’t hold fast to our faith and to our relationship with Jesus Christ, when we press on, we will quickly lose our way. If we surrender our hope, our passion for our church and our Lord, then we will have no reason to press on; and the business of the church becomes meaningless. But by holding fast to Christ, pressing on becomes the joy that it can be.
That’s one way to approach World Communion: by holding fast while we press on. The truth is, and no one will deny it, we are not the world we long to be. We don’t live in harmony with our neighbors; the nations don’t aspire to the mountain of the house of the Lord to beat their swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. And we who are called to be tending the house of the Lord aren’t necessarily doing so in a way that it might draw all the nations or even the stranger in our own neighborhoods to us. So, we’re called to press on. While we hold fast to the image of the kin-dom of God that Jesus presents to us, we press on until it is established in our midst. Not that it is up to us to establish it, but still we work as though it is. We labor in the fields to which Christ has sent us, pressing on to the surpassing value of knowing Christ more. We’re not there yet, either, Paul, but we hold the vision and press on to the goal