Fanatics for Christ?

Sermon Series: The Walk Continues

Fanatics for Christ?

May 27, 2010 - May 30, 2010

Philippians 1:12-26

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Bill Henderson

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Fanatic. There are certain labels Christians don’t ever want to hear being used to describe them. Labels like: religious fanatic, extremist, militant Christian, Jesus freak, and one of the oldest labels, idiot [Acts 4:13]. In our day labeling a Christian a fanatic is deadly.  The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines fanatic as a person filled with excessive and mistaken enthusiasm.

Let’s be honest -some of you are fanatics. I know that some of you DVR’ed the final episode of the TV series Lost last Sunday – one of 11 million who have hung on for 6 years trying to make sense of a nonsensical island. People so dislike the term fanatic, it’s been shortened - to fan.

I suspect some teens here are a fan of Lady Gaga. Can any of you identify with this [Yankee logo]? Here is a symbol of some who are filled with excessive and misguided enthusiasm [Red Sox logo] When I think of the baseball barbs traded in this church I’m reminded of Winston Churchill’s comment:  "A fanatic is one who can't change his mind and won't change the subject".

But the SOED has another definition for fanatic: a person who acts or speaks in a way that seems as if he or she is possessed by a god. Our text this morning deals with a person who appears to be a fanatic, the apostle Paul. It’s clear that Paul’s encounter with the risen Jesus on the Damascus Road changed his life. Here was an extremely pious Jew, a man who was actively chasing down and imprisoning Christians after Christ’s resurrection, who is struck blind on the road to Damascus while he is on his way to pick up more Christians. And once Jesus Christ appeared to Paul, Christ became the singular pursuit of his life. He became a fanatic for Christ.

The question we must ask ourselves is this – is Paul over enthused for Christ or might you and I be missing the experience of Christ that Paul had? Are we perhaps fanatics, but for the wrong things - – like American Idol, the gym, our jobs, the grandchildren? And if we’re wrong-headed/ how do we get turned around?

Every day I must fight the way I was raised. I was raised to be middle of the road – go to church, but not too often; freely give money to the church, but not too much; sing the hymns but not too loudly; be happy in worship, but don’t raise your hands.

The thing that is wrong with this approach to life is that it leaves a person holding back from Christ. C. S. Lewis wrote this in his essay ‘Is Christianity Hard or Easy?’ Christ says to us: Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work. I want you. ..No half measures are any good. I will give you a new self instead. In fact I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.”  It sounds to me that Christ is out to make us fanatics for him – that we speak and live as if possessed by the God who is our savior.

Unless we are truly possessed by Christ, we cannot say with Paul for me to live is Christ and to die is gain.

Paul’s Attitude towards Life’s Circumstances

Paul, the great Christian missionary, is in chains in Rome. Paul’s’ situation looks dire to me. He is awaiting trial and could be executed. It looks like evangelism is cooked.

But Paul tells us that what has happened has actually served to advance the gospel. Paul can’t keep quiet about Jesus. It is no exaggeration for him to say that many of the Roman guards knew that Paul was under arrest because of his faith in Christ.

Paul sees in the circumstances of prison that Christ is working. This is a divinely appointed time when the gospel can be defended at the highest echelons of Roman society.

Paul did not stop doing what Christ had called him to do simply because he had been arrested. Christ gave him boldness to continue to share the good news. And that inspired many of the Christians in Rome.

Being possessed by Christ, helps Paul see his circumstances differently. He can see the joy in spite of his imprisonment. He keeps his eye on the goal of life - Christ. No circumstance can derail that.

We Americans often have grave difficulty dealing with bad circumstances - circumstances often not of our own doing. But we look for rescuers from the difficulties of life. Rarely do we encourage people to keep on doing what is the most important thing to do, which is to follow Christ, share Christ, live Christ.

Paul’s Attitude towards His Personal Critics

Not everyone in Rome loves the apostle Paul. Surprise! Maybe ‘Everyone Loves Raymond’, but not everyone loves you. Each of has our critics, sometimes even within the church. The most painful critics are the people closest to us or those we feel should be on our side.

It is a sad but true fact that some Christians like to kick other Christians when they are down. I was watching a TV Christian preacher a few months ago who was saying that if you lost your job during the current economic crisis, it was because you lacked faith in God. And God was punishing you. Ouch.

There were Christians in Rome who were embarrassed by Paul. The fact Paul was UNDER ARREST by the emperor, proved he wasn’t blessed by God. So Paul’s critics decide to hurt him personally when they share the Gospel.

Their motives were truly malevolent. For the particular words Paul chose to describe them— “envy,” “strife,” and “selfish ambition”—are words frequently found in lists of other vices that always adversely affect, even endanger, the life of the church. That kind of critic could also show up in Philippi; in fact they could also show up in Brunswick. Paul is more concerned with the hurt these people can cause in the Roman church than he is with how they hurt him.

So what does Paul say – what does it matter, the motives of those Christians. The key thing is in every way, regardless of motive, Christ is preached. You simply couldn’t say such a thing unless Christ possessed you.

Paul was not a super Christian. It was because Paul clearly understood what life was all about. It is all about Christ and the gospel.

Paul’s Attitude toward Life and Death

Paul also helps us to see what’s most important in life. What drives Paul is this – living is Christ. Life means Christ. Everything Paul does—trusts, loves, hopes, obeys, suffers, preaches, follows —is inspired by Christ and is done for Christ. Christ, and Christ alone, gives inspiration, direction, meaning, and purpose to his existence.

To live is Christ, to die is gain. We would have no trouble agreeing with Paul if he had said, ‘I would prefer to die than to continue in prison.’ We are all familiar with situations that are so dreadful that death is a relief. But Paul is not saying that death is better than the worst of life. He is saying death is better than the best of life. In other words, he was not longing for death as the way out of unbearable circumstances. He was longing for it as the way into unspeakably glorious circumstances; to be in Christ’s presence.

The apostle Paul had experienced the sheer grace of God in Jesus Christ on the Damascus road and his life was changed forever.

In giving us that grace God demands that we give up control of our lives. Each of us right now is living for something. That something is controlling our lives. What is it that controls your life?

Verse 21 is Paul’s’ test of his heart. We too must take the test. What is most important to you?

For me to live is………………………………….for me to die is………………

On Memorial Day, 1949, Dr. Effie Wheeler, professor of English at Wheaton College for the previous 16 years, wrote the following letter to the college president and asked him to share it with the students:  “My doctor at last has given what has been his real diagnosis of my illness for weeks—an inoperable case of cancer of the pancreas. Now if he had been a Christian he wouldn’t have been so dilatory and shaken, for he would have known, as you and I do, that life or death is equally welcome when we live in the will and presence of the Lord.  If the Lord has chosen me to go to Him soon, I go gladly. On the other hand, I remember that Christ is still the Great Physician. And so in simple faith and trust I say to Him, “Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me whole.” I await His answer utterly at peace.  Please do not give a moment’s grief to me. Think of me only happily, gaily, as I do of you.  I do not say a cold good-bye, but rather a warm “auf Wiedersehen,” till I see you again—by God’s power and grace on campus this fall or later in the Blessed Land, where I may be allowed to draw aside a curtain when you enter.” Two weeks later Effie Wheeler met Jesus face to face.

Effie Jane Wheeler met Jesus face to face two weeks after she wrote this letter. She was, when she wrote this, sick and dying. Even in her weakened physical state Christ is all in all for her.  If the examples of Professor Wheeler’s life and the Apostle Paul reflect a fanaticism for Christ then I want to be a fanatic like that. How about you? AMEN

To contact Bill Henderson about this sermon, please email or write to: Brunswick Presbyterian Church, 42 White Church Lane, Troy, NY 12180