Last year, I checked off my bucket list one of the places that I had wanted for many years to visit: Assisi, Italy. The desire to visit Assisi was, I am sure like many, to visit the places where the beloved St. Francis walked, lived, and preached. To say it was a holy experience would be an understatement.
The town of Assisi sits upon a breathtaking hill with the Basilica of St. Francis in prominent view. As you walk along the cobbled streets peering into the shops, your imagination takes you away to what it might have been like when St. Francis walked the streets as a rowdy youth turned humble beggar. St. Francis has universal appeal; Catholic and Protestant, other faith traditions, and even the non-religious appreciate this man of God, whose life was spoken less with words than with actions. There is a mutual admiration society for this thirteenth-century follower of Jesus whose call to live out the Gospel continues to offer hope to a beleaguered and downtrodden world.
It was enough for me to simply breathe the air of Assisi, knowing that St. Francis once lived there, but then to hear his story come to life was another. As we walked the city, the tour guide shared the places associated with Francis. I could not help but wonder about those who had been a bystander on that fateful day, when the crowds watched as Francis was put on trial by his wealthy, status-conscious father, and when, surprisingly to all present, Francis dramatically takes off his clothes and, standing naked, hands his clothes and money owed, and gives them to his father. As he does so, he declares in the piazza for all to hear that from now on, he will serve "my father, who is in heaven, and not my father, Peter Bernadone."
What a dramatic story! You can almost hear the music playing in the background. It's no wonder that St. Francis has captured our imagination through the centuries. In fact, St. Francis has become quite the romantic figure, with prayers and garden statues and the blessing of animals celebrated in his honor. But more profoundly, and perhaps that which gets lost on modern hearers, is that this is no Arthurian Romance, but the Gospel come alive. It is that moment when like the Apostle Paul, someone dares to give up everything of value and instead declare:
"For his sake, I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him." Or perhaps even more, "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death..."
It's there in that piazza in Assisi that St. Francis, gives up everything - wealth, prestige, honor - all to follow Jesus, taking on even Jesus' suffering, so that he might be raised to new life. We have come to expect this of St. Francis, but I don't imagine that anyone would expect this from any Christian today or indeed not from anyone we sit next to in our pew or eat our weekly church supper with. No, Francis is the romantic side of Christianity - surely that is not expected of us today, is it?
When we think about the romanticized version of faith, we also think of the Apostle Paul. We know that, after he encounters Jesus on the road to Damascus, he will give up everything to follow Jesus. He will risk his life to journey around the Mediterranean to share the Good News even when it means being chained, imprisoned, and ultimately death. It doesn't surprise us, if we are honest, that Paul does this. He is, after all, Saul of Tarsus - tough guy turned good guy who no longer raises his banner of proud Pharisee and Roman birth but instead teaches and preaches about the power that comes from a Galilean preacher who was crucified and raised from the dead. We expect self-sacrifice, suffering, a take-no-prisoners attitude from Paul. But surely, this can't be expected of us today too, can it?
Maybe this is just the romantic side of Christianity. But what is perplexing is that here in Paul's loving letter to the church at Philippi, he shares that everything he has achieved means nothing compared to claiming Jesus Christ as Lord and knowing the power of his resurrection. That somehow, he may attain the resurrection of the dead, not that he has obtained this or even reached the goal. Paul knows that when one enters into a relationship with Jesus and begins the journey of faith, it is going to be a long one and not always an easy one.
Perhaps this is why we sometimes find ourselves slipping into a comfortable Christianity relying on a lukewarm faith, rather than desiring to put on our running shoes and picking up our cross. It's easier, and it does not require us to take the Gospel message quite so literally. Let's leave that instead to the dreamers, to the romantics.
But here Paul is saying, don't let your successes, your curriculum vitae, your power, and possessions, keep you from pressing on to the goal. In Methodist circles, we would call this going on to Christian Perfection, being made perfect in love. Paul hasn't just put his faith on the sidelines waiting until the end of the race, waiting to die and be resurrected or to just one day fly away. No, he is staying in the race full speed ahead, sweating, hurting, pressing on toward being made perfect in love. Paul's words to the church at Philippi are fighting words; they are words of encouragement. They are words that say, don't take off your running shoes yet; we are not done here. Don't put your faith on autopilot, don't settle in and get too comfortable, keep going, keep running, keep pressing on, now is not the time to give up, and there is too much left to do. Sacrifices are still needed. There is too much at stake.
If you ask me, this sounds more like an action and adventure story than a romantic impossibility. And I think Paul wants us to know that we are not in this alone. That knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection is not just about when we die, but it is about what gives us life today.
In resurrection power, Paul is talking about the real power that gives us the strength to keep running the race. It's the lifeblood, it's the power and Spirit of God that Paul is talking about. And when he talks about the resurrection, it's the power that can heal a blind man, heal a bleeding woman. It can cast out demons. It's the power that can multiply two fish and five loaves to feed thousands; the power that can turn water into wine, that can raise the dead to life. It's the power that can turn selfish hearts into the hands of grace. It's the power that can cause someone who has spent their life achieving the world's success, only to one day realize it has no value, that the only thing worth value is receiving the heavenly prize of Jesus Christ.
It's the power that gave St. Francis a heart for the poor, and the ability of the Apostle Paul to rejoice in his sufferings. It's the same power that is alive even today, perhaps much to our surprise, even in those who we sit next to in the pew, or whom we eat with during church family supper.
I remember sitting down for a meal with a woman, only it was not at a church family supper, it was lunch on my first day of seminary. This woman, like me, was a second career pastor, or in her case a third career pastor. She was a nurse-turned-lawyer, and now was throwing it all away - titles, paycheck, and a job in a lucrative law firm - to pack up her family to attend seminary in Atlanta, to follow the call of Jesus. We hit it off immediately and became very close over the course of our seminary years. She would become affectionately known as my Jesus Friend.
Once out of seminary, it would not be uncommon for her to call me when she was preparing a sermon, and she would say, "Hey, let's talk about Jesus." And of course, that would be what I was hoping she would say. In one of our conversations, she said, "Listen to this, it's from Paul, I just love Paul, don't you? Listen to this, 'I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus, my Lord.' Isn't that good, isn't that good?" And with more excitement, she would say, "Listen to this, Paul said, 'I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.'" Then she would say, "I want to know the power of the resurrection too, don't you? Mmm mmm," she would utter.
What you don't know is that my sweet Jesus Friend was battling her second occurrence of ovarian cancer. She clung to the power of the resurrection as if her life depended on it and, well, it did. The last time I saw her before she died, she was standing in a pulpit preaching about some dry bones lying dead in a valley. She was nothing but skin and bones herself, and she was asking the question, "Can these bones live?"
Well, I didn't need to wait for her response because I already knew what it was. She had given up everything, a career of worldly accolades to pursue a call that God had placed on her life, and she would not have done anything else. As she stood and preached, she lived every word that came out of her mouth. And with full assurance, she believed in the power of the resurrection.
For her, it was a True Romance. She was finally preaching God's word and finally giving all her life to Jesus. Even in her sufferings, it was nothing compared to knowing Christ Jesus, her Lord. Of winning the prize, Jesus the love of her life. Oh, that we could all have such faith, such love.
May it be so.
And now, would you join me in prayer as we end as we began, with St. Francis of Assisi:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where the is discord, unity;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.