Proper 21A. 28 September 2014.
Alexander D. MacPhail
For the next three Sundays we will be reading Paul's letter to the church in Philippi. The letter to Philippi is unique among Paul's letters, because it is without question the most affectionate letter he wrote that we know of. It is possible that the letter is compilation of several letters, as we know that Paul wrote to them several times.
For a moment let's back up and consider Philippi itself. It was one of the Macedonian cities in what is now northern Greece, along the ancient Roman highway known as the Via Egnatia.
Philippi was originally settled around 356 BC by the king of Macedonia, Philip II, near the head of the Aegean Sea, at the foot of Mt. Orbelos. And it was founded so that the king could take control of the surrounding gold mines, and establish a military garrison. It was a prosperous and well respected city throughout the Roman era, until it was destroyed by the Ottoman conquest in the 1300s. The present day Filippoi is built near the ruins of the ancient city.
Though the first church building during Paul's time was little more than a small house for prayer, due to Paul's affection and his letters, the church grew, and in time several beautiful church buildings were built.
But about the community itself—the people: these were mostly Christians who had not first been Jews, so they are mostly, culturally, Roman—and specifically Macedonian.
Paul is writing to them from prison. We don't know for sure where, but likely from prison in Ephesus, just across the Aegean Sea. People were not imprisoned then as an act of punishment, as we punish people now. If you were in prison it meant that you were being held for trial. And there were only two ways out. You were either tried and convicted, which meant you were put to death; or you were found innocent, which meant that you were flogged and released. Remember that that's what Pilate wanted to do with Jesus—is just have him flogged and released; remember Jesus was found innocent by Pilate.
But the prison itself was simply a place of restraint. It could be a military barracks; it could be a house where someone was kept. For people who were considered of noble birth, it could be that they would simply be exiled. But no matter where it was, it was considered, obviously, shameful.
So for a moment consider the gravity of this letter. Paul is writing to them from prison. He's not sunning himself after a day of making tents near Corinth; he has been imprisoned for attempting to spread the gospel. And he writes to them with such tenderness. He says things, like, "I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you.." He writes, "I hold you in my heart." He writes, "My beloved and longed-for brothers and sisters, my joy and my crown…" The letter is caressive, tender.
He also writes, "I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard that my imprisonment is for Christ…"
So the point is made that what may seem to be a shameful occurrence, something that puts Paul and the Christian cause back a few squares, has actually advanced the gospel. People know that it isn't for misbehavior that Paul has been arrested, but for the faith.
It was quite appropriate that Paul write in the tone of the father to the children. We sort of bristle at that now. Paul's tone can seem patronizing to modern hearers, but as with all of Paul's letters, he is writing in the role of the pater familias—the head of the household—the one who has the right both to approve and correct.
So here we come to the lesson for today. And as we do, we have a translation problem that needs to be addressed. It's the very first word of this lesson: If.
"If there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, and sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy…"
It seems like Paul is speaking from ignorance about their culture, because the word is translated "If." In fact, the Greek is closer to "Since." And that is meaningful.
"Since there is any encouragement, any consolation from love, and sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy…" Since all of those wonderful hallmarks of your common life are present, he writes, "make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind."
And that's where we learn that just like the Corinthians, and the Romans, the Christians in Philippi are having a little trouble getting along. As in the letter to the Romans, Paul is urging them to regard each other with affection and respect. "Same mind, full accord." "Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others." "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus."
And here Paul lays out the most basic theology of Christ himself—or what scholars call Christology—that is, how the church understands the humiliation and exaltation of Jesus. Paul writes—and I'm going to paraphrase:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was God, he did not think of his status as something to be used for his own personal gain, but instead, he emptied himself. Humbled himself. He became a slave for us, and not only that, but he offered himself to death—even the violent and humiliating death of the cross. And since God values self-emptying, self-sacrificing love, God has rewarded him by exalting him and giving him a position of unrivaled honor, that everyone may know him, and that he is worthy of worship and honor.
Paul is giving this formula for the Christian life—as it was exemplified by Christ. When you lay down your own interests for the betterment of others, even if is painful, or humiliating, God will honor and redeem you.
Humility is considered a virtue now, but it may surprise you to learn that it wasn't back then. You may recall when I was talking two Sundays ago about how everyone showed honor differently, depending on where one was in the social order. To show honor to those above you was a duty. And everyone always wanted more honor. It was considered to be of greater value than money.
The idea of laying aside one's honor or status was even more unthinkable than to throw one's money away. And here is Jesus, whom the Church has recognized—in perfect hindsight—as the Son of the God, and Jesus—Paul writes—has laid down that most honored status.
So here is the ultimate reversal. Jesus ascends by humility. He is born the Son of God, but he lays it down, and God honors this paradoxical behavior, by exalting him and giving him even more honor. So Paul says, "Here is your standard. Here is the model for human life. This is how people will know that you—that we, Christians—are unlike everyone else. Instead of spending our lives trying to get honor—we lay it down in the service of the poor—and God will award us with more honor than we could ever get on our own.
So now, do you feel the rhetorical punch in this letter? Consider where is he writing from! Prison. He is facing either death or flogging. And through the dishonor of it he is saying, "This is not a bad thing! The Gospel is going forward! Even in my incarceration God has been at work."
He writes, "Just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure."
Paul writes from this unwavering perspective that what is visible is only the surface of a much deeper story that God is bringing to fulfillment. That even when it seems that we are spinning our wheels, God is making progress. (Pause.)
And from the perspective of someone in my role, this is a helpful message. It is too easy to be seduced by the belief that success in the kingdom of God is like success in the world. That for a church to be a success, more time must be spent, more income, more people, more of everything.
Yet, again and again, we are drawn back to that wonderful canticle in Morning Prayer. Those of you who pray the Daily Office on your own may be familiar with the Second Song of Isaiah,
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55.6-11)
I believe it was the former Presiding Bishop, Frank Griswold, who expressed this concern: that the clergy would become—and I believe this was his expression—"technicians of the holy." That we would no longer have a sense of awe at the majesty and sovereignty of God. That Church would be considered something we do.
The Church is never something that we do, whether we are lay or ordained. The Church is what God has created, and is always creating by the power of his Spirit. And though we can and should do what we can to support it, the church remains God's—and God's alone.
During my vacation, in fact, the last Sunday of it, my wife was back at her parish, and she took our children with her. I decided that I wanted to know what it was like to just stay home on a Sunday morning. The opportunities for that are obviously very rare, and I'd forgotten what it was like.
But I took the time to pray and meditate and do spiritual reading. And several times, over the course of the morning, I would hear church bells, calling people to worship in Woodstock. I was disarmed by the sound, as I usually hear them up close. I have rarely heard them call to me from a distance.
At first I felt pangs of guilt, but then I considered the gift of hearing the bells from various churches. Each time I heard them, it reminded me that God was calling people together to give thanks, to worship. The bells themselves were an act of worship.
And I wondered what people who don't go to church think about when they hear those bells. Do they think about God? Do they think about the Christians who have gathered under that sound? Do they consider that God may be using us to help bring something to fulfillment? I hope so, because I do believe that God is bringing something beautiful to completion, and I believe that we, who do come to Church, and pray, and care, are given glimpses into it.
For God's thoughts are not our thoughts, nor our ways, his.