Walking Right into Heaven
Dear “saints in Christ Jesus... with the bishops and deacons,
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:1-2)
Last Sunday we heard St. Paul encouraging us through the introduction of his letter to the Christians in Philippi: “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6). That is good news for us as baptized children of God. God is still at work through our baptism to strengthen and keep us firm in the true faith every time we hear His Word. Our salvation is His work alone from beginning to end.
Is there anything, then, for us to do, or are we to just hang around and wait like we do when we are all ready but it is not yet time to depart? Perhaps it was like that for you this morning when you got ready for church. You had eaten and showered and dressed. You put on your shoes and got your coat and hat out of the closet. But you checked the time and it was twenty minutes or so before the time you usually leave the house.
What to do? There isn’t really enough time to squeeze some task in to the schedule. You don’t want to mess up your church clothes by doing a quick chore. And you certainly don’t want to get to church too early. There doesn’t seem to be anything to do but wait.
While we wait for the day of our Lord Jesus Christ, there is nothing for us to do in order to bring to completion what God has given to us in our baptism. That is, there is nothing to be done in order to activate the forgiveness, life, and salvation that Jesus won for us on the cross and poured out upon us at our baptism. But there is quite a bit we can do to fulfill our calling to give glory to God and love to our neighbour.
When the children are ready too soon, all spruced up and clean, and then they have to wait, there is much that they can do to get themselves in trouble. It doesn’t take much time for the clothes to get dirty, a quarrel to break out, or something to get broken. And then by the time it is sorted, you don’t get on your way at the scheduled time. I do that to myself quite regularly. I think that I can get some little task completed in the time to spare, but then something happens and I find myself scrambling to get back on schedule.
In telling the Christians in Philippi that “He who began a good work in you will bring to completion in the day of Christ Jesus,” the Apostle Paul was not telling them that there is nothing to do while waiting for that day. On the contrary, there is perhaps too much that could be done. There is a lot of trouble that the children of God can get into while they wait for the coming of Jesus, and it is the kind of trouble that can lead to missing the open door to the eternal heavenly feast. We don’t want to start doing that kind of stuff while we wait for the coming of our Saviour.
On the other hand there is a lot for God’s children to do in thanks to God and in love to their neighbour while they wait for that day. So what are you going to do? There is nothing that you can do to save yourself, but there is much that can be done that will forfeit the salvation given. There is nothing that you can do to improve upon your baptism or bring it to completion, but there is much that you can do to live out the faith and love that God has imparted to you in your Baptism.
So what do you do? Do you just hold yourself in restraint, fearing to touch anything lest you be defiled? (Sit on that chair and don’t move until it is time to go.) Or do you give in to the itching feet that want to move around and do something before you get stir crazy?
The Apostle does not leave us without some direction. He does not urge us to go off according to our own whims, but neither does he tell us to stand still in a corner. Rather, he urges us to imitate him and others whom we have seen walking according to the pattern of those who have been with Jesus.
Don’t just stand around and wait. Get out and walk, but watch whose footsteps you are walking in. Keep your head up and your eyes on those who walk in faith. Not everyone walks that way. Some walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. It is not their desire that you find your salvation in Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection for your sins.
This is not as simple as it sounds. You might think that it would be as easy as following after people who do good things and turning away from the path of those who do evil things. Don’t get drunk, don’t do drugs, don’t hurt people. Do good deeds, give to the poor, say your prayers. But St. Paul knew that it was not so easy for the Christians in Philippi in the first century.
For there were many people doing good deeds, giving to the poor, and saying prayers, who were enemies of the cross of Jesus. These are the kind of people like those in the Gospel reading who asked Jesus a question about what to do: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (Matthew 22:17) They did not want anyone to follow the teachings of Jesus. They wanted people to follow their teachings and follow their footsteps which accredited salvation to themselves. They felt they had no need for Jesus and that the Christian faith was a detriment to people really getting out there to do some good in world. And a lot of people blindly follow them, because it seems right to do good stuff and not to do bad stuff. And it looks like they are doing the good stuff.
With godly wisdom based on the Word of God, the Apostle Paul knew that those footsteps led to destruction. For no amount of good deeds will garner salvation from sin, death, and the devil. You are accountable for your sins. They are not excused or overwritten by a stack of charitable receipts. Not even your act of praying can forgive your sins. Only the actions of Jesus on the cross give forgiveness. Many people would rather you look to your own actions and so see how much better their actions are.
Paul described them as those whose god is their belly. They look to themselves, navel gazing, to see who has saved them. It is not so much that they fill their bellies by overindulging in food, drink, or drugs, but they seek to satiate their appetite for recognition and praise. It is their egos that they want to feed. But all of the glory they may receive from the world, is only shame before God. For they push the Saviour to the side so that they might stand in the spotlight.
Yet, we do not want to avoid all people who give to the poor and do good for those in need, and who say their prayers. For that is exactly what we see St. Paul doing, and he tells us to imitate him, to follow the pattern of his life. Paul, and all true saints of God, do these things not for their own glory or to feed their ego. They do these things to point us to Jesus, so that we will see the Saviour in whom they place their trust for salvation. When they look at themselves they see their wretched, sinful motives and cry out to be saved.
They are not enemies of the cross. Rather, they cling to the cross. They know that their sins are forgiven only in the suffering and death of Jesus upon that cross. They find nothing worthy of worship in themselves, but confess that they are poor, miserable sinners. They do not glory even in the good that they do, but are ashamed of the desire they have to receive any form of praise. They give all glory to God knowing that any good that comes out of their lives is not their doing, but the presence of Him who began a good work in them, bringing it to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
You know people like this. They are walking according to the pattern they have seen in the Apostle Paul and others. They are not concerned about feeding any earthly appetites for reward or recognition, because they know they are only visitors here. They have in mind that “our citizenship is heaven.” That is where we belong. The praise and glory of the world are foreign. It is not what you are truly hungry for.
You know people like this who act out of faith without looking for recognition. They don’t give in order to get any praise in return. They just do these things because it gives glory to the God who has done everything for them. This kind of glory is not increased by attention being drawn to it, but it is the kind of glory that is all the greater because only the Lord knows about it.
What they desire is their home in heaven. So they wait for the coming of Jesus. They are all dressed and washed and fed. They are clothed with Christ, cleansed in Holy Baptism, fed with the body and blood of Jesus. They know there is nothing they need to do to be saved. They are waiting for the day of our Lord Jesus Christ—not waiting in a corner, or nervously twitching to do something of significance. They wait with faith in Christ’s promises that He is coming, and that “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion.”
They are living in the confidence that their sins are forgiven, their home is in heaven, and that all that is lacking in them is being transformed into perfection. Their works, their charity, their prayers are all being purified through the forgiveness of sins, and sanctified by the work of the Holy Spirit, proclaiming to them the perfect work of Jesus on the cross.
You know them. You have them as a pattern to follow. And they have you as a pattern to follow. We are all waiting until it is time to go. But so much is happening in the waiting. We continue to be recipients of the grace of God. We do truly good works because God is at work in us. We are not conformed to the ways of the world, but are being transformed by the renewing of our minds, renewed with the eternal wisdom of God, which points us away from the things of this world, to where our eternal citizenship resides. We can render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, because we know that we are God’s.
He is at work in us even while we are waiting. And when our Saviour appears the transformation will be complete, body and soul. We will be like Him, not by our own power but by His. And then it will be time to go and we will walk with Jesus and all the saints right into heaven.
“The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your Spirit” (Philippians 4:22).