ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH March 13, 2016
RESTING ON OUR LAURELS
Philippians 3: 4b – 14; John 12: 1 – 8
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
In 1987, Eamonn Coghlan, the world fastest, best and most celebrated indoor runner, was racing in a 1500 m qualifying heat. With two and a half laps left, he tripped and fell. He got up and with some effort managed to catch the leaders. With only 20 yards left in the race, he was in third place — good enough to qualify for the finals. He glanced over his right shoulder. With no one there he let up his pace. Two other runners came up on his left and passed Coghlan a yard before the finish. He was eliminated him from the finals. Coghlan made three mistakes – he was overly self-assured; he took his eyes off the finish line; he decided the race was over before the end. In short, he “rested on his laurels”.
“Resting on our laurels” is a term borrowed from the ancient world in which a laurel wreath was given to successful army commanders, as well as athletes and poets who won meets and competitions. It was a great tribute to win a laurel wreath, similar to winning the Stanley Cup, an Oscar or a Nobel Prize. To rest on one’s laurels is to rely on past successes and honours for continued fame or recognition.
Spiritually speaking, its human nature to rest on our laurels. The early Church grew out of Judaism. Jesus was a Jew and so were his followers. They continued to be faithful Jews, keeping the law, after Jesus’ resurrection. When Gentiles started to believe in Jesus, a question the Church struggled with was: Do Gentiles need to convert to Judaism before they could be Christian? There was a group known as the Judaizers who held the strong opinion that they did. While resurrection life came through Christ, one’s personal success in keeping the Law as proscribed in the Torah still mattered. On the other side of the argument was Paul. If anyone had reason to put his confidence in his early Jewish qualifications it was Paul, “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” (vs. 4 – 6) Yet he didn’t. If Paul had reason to rest on his laurels, he had clearly reached his goal. He had impeccable credentials. There was a time when Paul looked to his accomplishments not only to give him personal identity and value, but also salvation. Not anymore. Paul had changed. All the things he once thought valuable meant nothing. He had met Jesus and Jesus had become his all. Paul thought that because we’re all saved by grace (God’s action through the death and resurrection of Jesus) through faith alone that “earning” our way to heaven with a good and godly resume was irrelevant. Paul didn’t rest on his laurels. In fact, he viewed any spiritual laurels he may have accumulated as worthless trash. As nothing. He had something of much more value. He had Jesus.
A story is told of a missionary family who was forced to leave the country after a communist revolution. A band of soldiers went to their home and said they had two hours to pack before they’d be escorted to the train station. They could ship only two hundred pounds. For two hours the family fought over what they should take. What about this vase? It’s a family heirloom. Well, maybe so, but this typewriter is brand new. What about books? On it went, putting stuff on the bathroom scale and taking it off until finally their possessions totaled two hundred pounds on the dot. At the appointed hour the soldiers returned. “Are you ready?” they asked. “Yes.” “Did you weigh your stuff?” “Yes.” “Two hundred pounds?” “Yes”. “And that includes the children?” In an instant the vase, the typewriter, and the books all became trash. None of it meant anything compared to the surpassing value of the children. In a similar way the things Paul had once valued, meant nothing compared to the surpassing value of Christ. He 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 there was a way to resurrection life with him, I ached for it.” (vs 10& 11) We can hear Paul’s longing and passion reaching out from within his words. When I read those words I wonder about myself. Does my passion for Christ come anywhere near Paul’s love? How badly do I want to know the risen Christ? How willing am I to share in his suffering?
What about you?
But just in case the Philippians thought Paul was planning again to pad his resume with the knowledge or suffering of Christ, he was quick to clarify, “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal … ” (vs 12). Paul was a work in progress which wasn’t a problem because the old order of achievement no longer counts in the new era of Christ. Only Jesus, his act of dying and his feat of resurrection, mattered. For most of his life Paul cried to God, Look at me! Look at me! See what I’ve done. His new refrain was Look at Jesus! Look at Jesus! See what he’s done! What’s important is not that Jesus knows what you or I have done but that we know what Jesus has done!
And yet many people rest on their laurels. Many rest on the fact that Grandma is a Christian or their family was Presbyterian or they grew up going to Sunday school. Some people rest on the good deeds they’ve performed. Some rest on their own spirituality. Within the Church, Christians rely on our piety as displayed in our personal devotions or worship attendance. Others look to their position in the church. Some point to their knowledge of scripture or theology. Or it may be that a congregation has been blessed and done well so it grows satisfied with the status quo. When congregations rest on their laurels they start to die and eventually what’s left is a small group of people who remember the glory days. Whatever our track record, resting on our laurels means resting on our pride. As the writer of Proverbs (16:18) put it, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”
Like us, Paul had not only achievements to leave behind but also actions of which he was ashamed, as well as his sufferings from terrible persecution. We can spend a lot of time and energy going over our life – our accomplishments, our failures and our wounds. But looking back doesn’t get us to the finish line. One day a field marshal requested an audience with Napoleon so he could report a great victory. He talked for a long time about his accomplishment, piling detail upon detail. Napoleon listened closely, but said nothing. Hoping for a word of praise, the officer was disappointed. In summary the marshal repeated much of what he’d already stated. Surely, he thought, Napoleon will now give me the praise I so richly deserve. When the marshal finally stopped talking, Napoleon asked him one question: “What did you do the next day?” Looking back distracts us from what lies ahead. Yes, it’s important to celebrate life’s good moments and our accomplishments. It’s important to resolve the things we regret. It’s important to find healing for our wounds. But none of those things are as important as what Jesus has done and as what we’ll do tomorrow in response to what Jesus has done.
A woman in her early nineties was still active in visiting the sick, preparing communion elements, and tutoring children at the elementary school. Her daughter was concerned, “Mother, don’t you think at your age you should back off from these activities and enjoy a lighter schedule? You’ve earned it after all these years, and I’m afraid you’re tiring yourself out.” Her mother drew herself up to her full five feet and answered, “When I decided to follow Jesus, I did not promise to follow him part of the way. I promised to serve him all the way. And that’s what I intend to do.” How we follow Jesus looks differently for each of us. It’s different at different stages of our lives. And it’s different because of our personal nature, gifts and callings. Whatever it looks like for you, what’s important is that we follow and serve him all the way.
Jesus Christ has made us his own and so like Paul we forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead.” (vs. 13) What lies ahead is the prize of new life in Christ when all the laurels of this life are thrown away like the rubbish they are and we are “found in him.” (vs. 9). To gain this prize we join with Paul in “pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenlycall of God in Christ Jesus” (vs. 14). At the Circus Maximus in ancient Rome there was an elevated cushioned throne called a pulvinar for “the gods”, the Caesar and the human sponsor of the event. From the pulvinar, the sponsor would give out the prize. The possibilities both of service and of sanctification are not exhausted until we are summoned to Christ’s throne to receive from him the prize that comes with finishing the race. We finish well in the race of life not when we rest on our laurels but when we fix our eyes on the finish line and press on towards Jesus.