Stay Connected

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Jesus said:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit, he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. (John 15:1-8, NIV)

“Remain in Me”

The word “remain” means to linger in the present moment – to be mindful to ourselves and our situations and stay connected. It is to have continual unbroken fellowship with Jesus.

To have a connection, there must be two ends to connect. The Jesus connection is consistent. It’s always there. We are the other connection. And, frankly, we can be flaky – pulling away and coming close. Which is why Jesus gives a repeated invitation to keep the connection. Here are a few other translations of John 15:4….

Stay joined to me, and I will stay joined to you. Just as a branch cannot produce fruit unless it stays joined to the vine, you cannot produce fruit unless you stay joined to me. (CEV)

Live in me, and I will live in you. A branch cannot produce any fruit by itself. It must stay attached to the vine. In the same way, you cannot produce fruit unless you live in me. (GW)

Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. (NKJV)

Stay connected to me, and I will stay connected to you! A branch cannot produce fruit on its own but only if it has a vital connection to the vine. In the same way, there’s no way you can produce fruit, at all, unless you have a meaningful connection with me.

Jesus (John 15:4, own translation)

Our task as Christians is to remain connected to Jesus. So, the question is: How do we keep the connection without breaking it? How can we be fruitful?

Focus On the Relationship

Christianity, at its core, is about a living relationship with Jesus. Yes, doctrine is important. And it is necessary to know the basic tenets of Christian faith. Yet, any knowledge and understanding we gain about Christianity is to be channeled into developing the relationship.

Bible trivia is only as good as the understanding we apply to build the relationship. Knowledge makes us proud of ourselves, while love makes us helpful to others. While knowledge makes us feel important, it is love that strengthens the church. Knowledge puffs up but love builds up. (1 Corinthians 8:1)

Christ’s redemptive events of incarnation, holy life, death, resurrection, and ascension are all meant to restore a severed relationship with humanity. Therefore, knowing doctrinal truth is not the same as using the doctrines to connect with God in a loving relationship.

As with all relations, it takes planning, dedication, time, and effort to grow and maintain our relationship with Jesus Christ. If we fail to use our time and energy on that relationship, then the leaves on the branch begin to wither.

Scripture, silence, solitude, community, prayer, giving, and fasting have always been at the center of Christian practices which are designed to put us in a position to hear and receive from God.

Relate Well to the Other Branches

The church is a community. Christ and the church have a vital union with each other. We are a living growing community. I used to live in a place where there was a tree that had grown up next to an old fence post. The tree grew tall and engulfed the post to the degree that now you can only see part of the fence post.

To try and remove the post, you would need to remove the tree. The two have become one. And the tree is still growing. Not only are we connected to the trunk, but we’re also connected to each other. We are all part of the same vine. We aren’t separate vines. So, we all need to do our part in the system of the vine.

Keep Close to the Vine

My grandmother had a grapevine in her backyard when I was a kid. I have firsthand understanding that the best grapes are located closest to the trunk of the vine. The sweetest, juiciest, biggest, and best tasting grapes are found in the middle, securely next to the vine’s trunk.

If you’re into sour grapes, then pick the ones at the end of the branches. Show me a sourpuss Christian, and I’ll show you a Christian who is not close to Christ. Show me a sweet Christian and I’ll show you a believer who daily works at their connection with Jesus.

Pruning is Necessary

Healthy vines need to be pruned, at least once a year. Ideally, twice a year, in the Spring before budding; and in the fall, after the harvest. To ignore pruning is to compromise the vine’s ability to produce both good grapes and lots of grapes. The branches of a grapevine need to be kept short because the nutrients are concentrated in and near the vine. Long branches compromise the harvest.

Pruning hurts. From the perspective of us branches, pruning feels like judgment. But it isn’t. Even though pruning is painful for us, it makes us healthier and tastier. It’s better to do a few things well, rather than try and do a lot of things for which we have limited time and energy. It is a good practice to do some pruning twice a year.

Know Why You are Connected

Christians are joined to Jesus. Yes, we are connected so that we are saved from sin, death, and hell. And, yes, we are also linked with Jesus to experience life to the full. Yet, the goal or the end of the connection is to produce succulent fruit.

If there are no grapes on the vine, the vine is useless. Then we get rid of it. Grapevines exist to produce grapes. Christians and churches exist for the life of the world, to produce the fruit of righteousness consistent with our Christ-connected union: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23)

The church is not an end in and of itself. The church exists for the life of the world. Jesus said:

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead, they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:13-16, NIV)

Pray

If we live in union with Christ, and if the words and ways of Jesus live powerfully within us—then ask for anything, and it will be done. Prayer is both an event and a process. It is something anyone can do, as well as a spiritual practice that needs growth and development.

God’s Word, the words of Jesus, are the nutrients for our spiritual life. When those words find a home within us, there is a divine/human conversation as well as a mystical union. Christ promises that if we just ask, it’s ours.

As our relationship with Christ grows, we learn to be thoughtful about our asking. Flippantly or selfishly asking for things disrespects the connection we enjoy with God. Claiming or demanding answers to prayer demeans the relationship. However, we can also dishonor God by simply not asking, at all.

Essentially, Jesus said to his disciples, “Go ahead, try me!” Prayer is the delivery system for our nutrients. And prayer is also the means of delivering the blessing of succulent fruit so that the world might live.

Jesus modeled prayer for his disciples, and for us. Those prayers are grounded in connection and unity with the Father. Just as God is One, we are to be one:

I am not praying just for these followers. I am also praying for everyone else who will have faith because of what my followers will say about me. I want all of them to be one with each other, just as I am one with you and you are one with me. I also want them to be one with us. Then the people of this world will believe that you sent me.

I have honored my followers in the same way that you honored me, in order that they may be one with each other, just as we are one. I am one with them, and you are one with me, so that they may become completely one. Then this world’s people will know that you sent me. They will know that you love my followers as much as you love me.

Father, I want everyone you have given me to be with me, wherever I am. Then they will see the glory that you have given me, because you loved me before the world was created. Good Father, the people of this world don’t know you. But I know you, and my followers know that you sent me. I told them what you are like, and I will tell them even more. Then the love that you have for me will become part of them, and I will be one with them. (John 17:20-26, CEV)

Conclusion

We are to live and to pray consistent with who we are and what our mission is. The church is to be one as God is one. Christians are to pray for unity because our triune God is always united. Believers everywhere are to remain and abide in Christ through a vital connection of loving God and loving neighbor.

1 Corinthians 3:10-23 – The Ultimate Sacred Space

According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.

Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.”

So, let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God. (NRSV)

You have an incredibly special position and status which no one can ever take away.

We were made by and for God. In the beginning, the creative activity of God achieved its pinnacle in the formation of a man and a woman. Only humanity carries within them the image and likeness of God. People are unique, special, and set apart as the creatures who can enjoy a close relational fellowship with their Creator.

However, humanity fell into disobedience, which introduced sin and death into God’s good world. Ever since that time, God has been on a rescue mission. The Holy Scriptures are an unfolding drama of redemption in which a heart-stricken God goes out of the way to make and keep promises to a sinful people. The Israelites, a people set apart from all other people, were meant to be devoted to God in such a way that the world would be drawn to their relationship with the Lord and with the created order.

Yet again, even with an impressive temple where people met God in sacred rituals and activities, the people went astray and followed their ancestors into worshiping other gods. God, ever the gracious Lord who does not forget the divine covenant of love, sent his Son, Jesus, as the ultimate fulfillment of all the good promises made.  Through the redemptive events of Christ’s cross, resurrection, and ascension the deliverance from all that is wrong and broken in this world is reversed. We are blessed with pardon and redemption from the slavery of sin.  We are given a renewed status as God’s people.

If this were not enough, God has given us the Spirit to help us. Christians, followers of Jesus Christ, are never alone. A merciful God makes us a holy people and the temple where the Lord dwells by means of the Spirit. In the Old Testament, the sacred space of worship was a physical building. Approaching the holy God meant entering a holy temple, set apart for connection between the divine and the human. The midpoint of history in which all events hinge is the cross of Christ. His redeeming work has transformed the world. 

Now, we are the temple of God, the sacred place where God meets with us. The glory of God is to be found, once again, in human beings. It is in this rich understanding of God’s activity and humanity’s new status that the Apostle Paul appealed to with a pointed rhetorical question: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”

“The church is not a religious community of worshippers of Christ but is Christ himself who has taken form among people.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The Corinthian church was in grave danger of doing the thing that all lost humanity had done through the ages.  They were breaking down into divisions and conflicts and were not thinking of others as God’s special people.  Paul named them collectively as God’s temple. They were not individual temples but one holy sacred temple together. This theology and anthropology were meant to teach, persuade, chastise, and encourage the Christians that there was no place for special-interest groups in the church; no room for following pet teachers and preachers; and no reason to ostracize others who didn’t agree exactly as you do.

Believers in Jesus Christ are collectively the people of God, the temple in which God dwells. This makes them a holy people, set apart for the exclusive worship of the triune God. We are to live up, not down, to who we are in Christ, in the Spirit, in the realm of God’s kingdom.

We are meant to return to the foundation of the temple. If the foundational works of this great temple of God are the redemptive events of Jesus, with Christ himself as the chief cornerstone of the structure, then we are meant to return in this great season of Lent to Jesus. With meekness and humility, we are to come to God in Christ by the Spirit and confess our many sins, repent of them all, and return to God as the special, holy, and loved people we are.

For far too long Paul’s letter to the Corinthians has been used to poke at people for smoking or drinking too much or generally not caring for our physical bodies. This was not so much Paul’s understanding. He was thinking much more along the lines of church unity, harmony, mutual love, grace, encouragement, and making decisions which are best for the common good of all. To break down Paul’s instruction to individual habits which harm the body is a woefully truncated view of his teaching. 

Instead, we are to have a high view of one another. We, together, are the people of God. We, together, are meant for holy worship of the triune God. We, together, are the complex expression of God’s creative action – a temple set in the middle of a watching world. 

Therefore, we are to be concerned for one another. We are to act as one holy people of God. We are to reflect the love, unity, and fellowship of the Holy Trinity in our life together. Let us then encourage each other toward love and good deeds; upholding the common good; and extending grace in all circumstances. For this is what temple living looks like.

Holy God, you have set us apart together as your holy people. Help so to live up to our status as your beloved creatures that we are continually mindful of you, one another, and the grace you give for all circumstances.  May our foundation be strong in the person and work of Jesus Christ, your Son, our Savior, as the Spirit dwells in us together. Amen.

The Way of Peace

Peace is neither merely the absence of conflict nor simply tolerating each other. Peace in Holy Scripture is cooperative fellowship, a harmonious way of living with God and one another based in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Peace is simultaneously a virtue we already possess and an ideal we need to obtain and live into.

In writing to the Church at Philippi, the Apostle Paul strung together several verbs to make it clear how to achieve peace on the practical level. Six of the verbs are in the imperative form, that is, they are commands.  Paul gave these imperatives to the Church because they were in danger of a breakdown in their fellowship. Embedded within Paul’s message is a deep Christian spirituality based in knowing Christ, with an overall message and imperative to keep persevering and not give up on peace or on one another.

  • Stand firm in the Lord. (Philippians 4:1) 

Standing firm in faith is a function of knowing Jesus Christ – an experiential knowledge beyond mere mental acknowledgement (Philippians 3:7-10). Our feet are to be firmly planted and rooted in the soil of Jesus Christ as our highest value and our surpassing greatness over and above anyone or anything else. 

This first command is a bedrock imperative. We cannot really move to the other five imperatives until we ensure our foundation is solid. In other words, there will be no peace in our personal lives or in our corporate life together unless we embrace Jesus as our most precious relationship.

If our god is our stomach and we do not take charge and own our Christian walk through spiritual practices that connect us with Jesus, then peace will be elusive. We must patiently, deliberately, and slowly plod along with Jesus and follow him as our highest priority in every sphere of our lives.

  • Help resolve disagreements. (Philippians 4:2-3) 

Euodia and Syntyche were two prominent women leaders in the Philippian Church. Whatever their differences were, Paul made it clear to them that they must agree and be like-minded concerning the issue. 

This second imperative goes beyond telling two persons to work out their differences; the church was called upon to help do the work of peacemaking. Because peace characterizes the triune God, and Jesus Christ came to achieve peace on our behalf, God’s people are to be peacemakers.

Many differences are resolved with far fewer disagreements when we abide in Christ. If folks immerse themselves in Scripture and in knowing Christ, instead of taking the stance of being right despite any evidence to the contrary, then a lot less peacemaking would even need to take place.

New Testament scholar D.A. Carson has said, “Personal differences should never become an occasion for advancing your party, for stroking bruised egos, for resorting to cheap triumphalism, for trimming the gospel by appealing to pragmatics.  Focus on what unites you: the gospel. Be like-minded; think the same things; agree with one another. Work hard and humbly on these central issues, and in most instances the peripheral matters will take care of themselves. Resolve to pursue like-mindedness with other believers. This will ennoble and strengthen all sides, so that you will never abandon the Christian walk.”

  • Let your gentleness be evident to all. (Philippians 4:4-5) 

The Christian is to have a basic disposition of humility and meekness. There is to be gracious forbearance with others that is publicly observable. Rejoicing in the Lord need not be a command when we are truly pursuing the experiential knowledge of Christ (because joy then just spills out of us). Gentleness is the fruit of a meek and humble spirit, a direct result of knowing the gentle Savior.

A solid building block of conflict intervention and resolution is a humble and gentle spirit – which goes beyond personal holiness. It is being close enough to rub shoulders with others so that the gentleness can be experienced by another. This will sometimes require getting graciously involved in the interpersonal affairs of others. 

Getting involved does not mean dipping into other people’s business with unsolicited advice, angry diatribes, nor taking sides. It means, rather, extending basic human kindness in all affairs of group life, being part of the solution instead of adding to the problem.

  • Do not be anxious about anything. (Philippians 4:6a)

Where disharmony exists, anxiety is not far behind. Worry about the future only obfuscates a way forward. Sometimes anxiety is rooted in our theology. If we fundamentally view God as a stern Being whose chief activity is dispensing disapproval and wrath, then we will likely live with an underlying sense of anxiety and fear of upsetting such a God. Performance-based living comes from trying to pull ourselves up by our spiritual bootstraps to placate a hard-to-please God who is always looking over our shoulder to make sure we do not mess up.

On the other hand, if our theology has God as a loving Being who is pained by the damage sin does to the souls of people, then we become open to the gracious mending of broken spirits. In the Christian tradition, the death of Christ is the ultimate act of love in handling the sin issue once for all. God in Christ did for us what we could do for ourselves.

Chronic spiritual anxiety usually arises from the inability to perceive a generous and hospitable God having our backs and working on our behalf. Knowing God, who is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, leads to peace and rest.  This logically leads to the fifth imperative….

  • Present your requests to God (Philippians 4:6b-7) 

Prayer naturally arises from a heart that knows God is listening. Prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings are all congruent actions stemming from an experiential knowledge of God’s grace.

Having the peace of God which transcends all understanding is a beautiful thing. If our theological view is of God playing games with us, holding out a carrot stick we can never quite reach, then peace will be elusive. Conversely, if we have confidence to present our requests to God and have the discipline to slow down long enough to do it, this inevitably leads to peace.

We are to pray about everything, in all circumstances with all kinds of prayers. Spontaneous prayers, written prayers, heartfelt prayers, silent prayers, and loud prayers are all encouraged. We are to pray without ceasing, praying for everyone – for rulers and all those in authority so that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. Pray, then pray some more. If we struggle to pray, perhaps we struggle with our view of God.

  • Put it into practice (Philippians 4:8-9) 

Armed with a vigorous theology, the task of spiritual formation is unlearning harmful theological approaches and discovering new and helpful ways of the Divine. This requires some basic spiritual disciplines of Scripture reading and prayer (both individually and communally), and practices of silence and solitude which put us in a position to connect with God and self.

Conclusion

Healthy spiritual rhythms help us know God and God’s peace. To put the six imperatives into practice, a plan is needed which translates good intentions into good habits. We need a rule of life. God may be opposed to earning salvation but is not opposed to sanctified effort – and effort is necessary for effective spiritual practices.

Do you have a method for being a peacemaker? Are you developing ways for making gentleness evident? Is there a plan in place for avoiding anxiety? What is your agenda for structuring consistent prayer?

Experiencing peace does not spontaneously materialize. Peace occurs through tapping into the spiritual resources we have in Jesus Christ. Realizing practical peace is rolling up our spiritual sleeves and working on the biblical imperatives Paul provided for us. It is everyone’s job, and not only the job of a few. 

May you know the peace of Christ this day.

May you experience God as your refuge and strength.

May God hasten the day when wars shall cease, and poverty and pain shall end so that the earth may know and experience the peace of heaven through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

On Knowing Christ

Pietà by Elisabeth Frink

The ancient Philippian church had lost sight of their purpose, of what is the primary reason for their being in existence. Simply put, they needed to unify around what is the central and most valuable core of Christianity: knowing Jesus Christ. For the Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Church at Philippi, Jesus was so valuable that he literally gave up everything to become a Christian and follow Jesus. (Philippians 3:4-14)

It was no little thing that Paul did, converting in such a completely life-altering way to Christ. Paul had everything going for him. He was the up and coming star in Judaism. Paul had the Jewish pedigree, the intelligence, the personality, and the drive to become one of the greatest Pharisees of all time. And yet he forsook it all to pursue and know Christ. 

It might be hard for us to imagine just how significant Paul’s turn around was. On a much smaller scale, it would be like Green Bay Packer quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, at the height of his career, leaving football altogether to become a missionary to some remote place few people have ever heard of. Most might likely think he lost his marbles and was throwing away (pun intended) something valuable and important. So, it was with Paul.  Everyone thought he was nuts for becoming a Christian.

However, this would be to misunderstand what is really of greatest value. There are plenty of people in our society telling us what we need. With all the noisy rhetoric, from political pundits to commercial marketers, the person and work of Jesus can easily get lost in an ocean of competing voices. On a practical level, it can be far too easy to simply toss Christian discipleship on the smorgasbord of good ideas we get handed each day. Jesus might get misplaced and forgotten on our plate of life because of the mass of other food that is piled alongside him.

World Communion Sunday (always the first Sunday in October each year) reminds Christians that Jesus is our surpassing greatness, the highest and most worthy asset we possess. When we come to the Lord’s Table, there is nothing else to feast upon except Jesus, and Jesus alone. In the act of receiving the common elements of bread and cup, we proclaim that we need no one else and no other thing to make us happy in this life. Jesus is enough for us. What is more, we stand united with our brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the world in a common purpose and value of knowing Jesus Christ, and him crucified.

The Elements of Holy Communion by Jacques Iselin

The core value and heart of Christianity is a faith and love relationship with Jesus, to know him. This was the heartfelt cry of the Apostle Paul, and it was so meaningful to him that he gave up everything to pursue Christ and follow Jesus.  If we ever strip Christianity of this core value and stray from knowing Christ, the vacuum will be quickly filled with all kinds of other stuff, like the sheer duty of perfunctory prayers, clean living, and dispassionate robotic service. 

Paul longed to know Christ better. There are two words in the Greek language for “know.” One word refers to information; the other refers to an experiential knowledge – and that is the word Paul used with the Philippians. He deeply desired an intimate experience of Jesus. And Paul craved this so much that literally everything, when compared to Jesus, was “rubbish” to him. 

In the ancient world there were no landfills and dumps – the street served as the place people threw their garbage. The trash then got trampled into the ground, along with the generous amounts of animal dung. That is how Paul thought of even the best things in life as compared to knowing Jesus. 

There is no comparison between a freshly grilled T-bone steak and microwaved liverwurst. There is no comparison between a billion dollars and a penny. There is no comparison between the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears (sorry Chi-Town). And there is no comparison between Jesus and anyone or anything else, no matter whom or what it is. 

Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, in the fifth century, described life apart from Jesus as “disordered love.” By that he meant we pursue whatever our affections are set upon. One might love family, friends, job, and hobbies, yet if Jesus is absent or must compete for our affections in the middle of those things, then it is a disordered love. The solution, for Augustine, is to rightly order our love by having Jesus as the premier object of our affection. The New Testament frames it this way: Repent and believe the gospel.

To have “disordered love” is a nicer way of saying “spiritual adultery.” Using this metaphor, the appropriate response is to return to our first love. “You have forsaken your first love,” said Jesus to the church in Ephesus.  “Remember the height from which you have fallen!  Repent and do the things you did at first” (Revelation 2:4-5). 

Christianity is not some religion in which we strike a deal with God to go to heaven if we accept Jesus. Rather, Christianity centers all of life in the person and work of Jesus. The Lord is a jealous God, feeling slighted when Christians moonlight with the world at night while acknowledging Jesus during the day.

Specifically, Paul wanted to know the power of Christ’s resurrection. He yearned to experience a supernatural change from the inside-out – to be a new person in Christ. Paul did not simply turn over a new leaf; he did a dramatic 180 degree turn and went hard after Jesus. A desire and/or decision to know Christ is to be more than a milquetoast “I’ll try to do better.” Christianity, at its core, is dying to self and being reborn in Jesus with new life.

Furthermore, Paul wanted to know Christ and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings. Paul ached to know Jesus so much that he embraced suffering, just as his Lord did. Paul was not some spiritual masochist; he rightly recognized that spiritual growth and intimacy with Jesus largely comes from the harsh realities of life’s trials and difficulties, as faith is stretched.  We would not know Christ the healer if we were not broken; Christ the provider if we were not in want; and, Jesus Christ and him crucified unless we were aware of sin in the world along with our own personal sin.

Each time a Christian approaches the Lord’s Table, they set aside competing voices and forsake rival gods to have Jesus. For us who believe, let the ingesting of the elements be an act of fellowship with God. May we, along with Paul, Augustine, and all past saints desire to have Jesus completely take over our lives because he is so valuable to us. We never need to be perfect to partake of bread and cup. Instead, we only need to strive toward what is ahead and decide that today we will press on toward the higher goal of knowing Christ.