Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 21, 2016

Philippians 3:17-4:1 Commentary

Was the church better off when it was persecuted or when it wielded significant political power and influence? It’s one of history’s bigger questions. Over the course of the first three or so centuries of the Christian church’s existence, a number of Roman emperors persecuted the church. One emperor, however, believed in the church, even making it a law that you should be a Christian! Some chased the church, one embraced the church, and it remains an open question who inflicted the most damage on the church! The emperor who legitimized Christianity was Constantine. Unlike Nero, Caligula, Diocletian, and any number of prior Roman leaders, Constantine himself underwent some kind of conversion experience just before winning the key battle that made him emperor.

Thus, once he took power, he got rid of the oppressive laws that had for so long been forcing Christians underground into catacombs. Under Constantine you could be a Christian in public because the republic had itself been baptized. Before long, history witnessed even something as extraordinary as the Roman emperor convening theological seminars, like the one Constantine called in the city of Nicaea in 325. In less than thirty years, Christians had gone from alleged enemies of the state to honored guests of the state.

By all worldly standards, we could view such a development as a happy turn-of-events. And in one sense it was. But in another sense the co-mingling of theology and politics, of church and state, had disastrous effects for many centuries to come. Those of you familiar with church history are aware of the corrupting influence politics had. Eventually you had emperors who took it upon themselves to appoint their own bishops and pastors. That way if someone in a church opposed the politics of the emperor, the emperor could instruct his hand-picked pastor to excommunicate this nettlesome fellow. Conversely, however, popes tried to gain political leverage by telling government leaders that if they didn’t do the church’s bidding, the pope would excommunicate them.

These days we cringe when we hear representatives of Al Qaeda or ISIS threaten jihad, “holy war” even as they refer to others as “infidels” who need to be rooted out. Alas, these Muslim fundamentalists are just tearing a page out of church history. Once the church had acquired the muscle of the state, it was able to do things like launch the “Crusades” as a holy war whose stated aim was to root the infidels out of the holy land. A third of Europe’s Jews and untold numbers of Muslims were slaughtered by these Christian crusaders.

These are unpleasant topics and yet at least some of Paul’s words in this Lectionary text from Philippians 3 force us to ponder to what kingdom we Christians belong. In this Lenten Season we can note that it’s the cross that makes all the difference. Those who abhor the cross remain citizens of this world but those who have paradoxically found new life in that cross now have a higher citizenship in the kingdom of heaven itself.

Overall, Philippians is probably the friendliest letter Paul ever wrote. But even friendly letters can contain stern advice, and so throughout Philippians Paul urges the church to adopt the mind of Christ Jesus. Jesus’ example of self-emptying humility and service sets the tone for all who follow. We are servants of one another. We are humble about God’s gifts, not arrogantly proud. And we rely on grace alone for salvation and so stay away from false teachers who claim that we need to earn our way to heaven.

In these verses Paul warns against those whom he labels “the enemies of the cross.” Near as we can tell, Paul is referring to those who said the cross did not really seal the deal with God in terms of our salvation. A great deal is still up to us, they claimed. So these counter-evangelists taught that you needed to be strict about following kosher food laws and, if you really wanted to be part of God’s elect people, you should be circumcised. You needed to live a certain way first if you wanted to get God’s attention and then love. When Paul talks about “their god is their belly and they glory in their shame,” he appears to be symbolically referring to food laws and circumcision.

But Paul says that only Jesus and what he did on the cross matters. Jesus did it all. Because of that, Paul says, we are now citizens of a new commonwealth, of a heavenly kingdom, and this needs to be our identity. The word in verse 20 that is translated as “citizenship” is a rare Greek word that occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. More literally translated it means something like “colony,” and you rather suspect that Paul had a very definite reason for using this word in this particular letter.

The city of Philippi was a Roman colony. The capital city of Rome was a long way away, but still the Philippians were Roman citizens, granted a lot of freedom and given a lot of financial benefits by virtue of being considered a colony of the empire. So here Paul is saying that the church itself is a colony of heaven. Most days we don’t exactly feel like we are living some “heaven on earth” existence. Paul talks about how Jesus has the power “to bring everything under his control,” but most days we live in a world that seems out of control. But Paul says Jesus is in control, he is Lord already, and we are citizens of his kingdom. Even on this earth and in this present time, we are a colony of heaven and so can enjoy the benefits of Jesus’ Lordship, if only we will stand firm for what we believe.

As citizens of God’s holy colony, our primary identity and allegiance needs to be first to that kingdom, and not to whatever nation in which we find ourselves for the time being. But how might that show itself? In terms of justice, we want to be prophetic witnesses of God’s way of doing things yet without thinking that the way to witness is to turn the state into the church or, conversely, thinking that the church should rule like the state. We need to be both firm and active, proclaiming and living God’s truth without mixing up our Christian and our national identities. We don’t assume, for instance, that being a good American automatically makes you a good Christian.

No one would wish a return to persecution. But when the church was persecuted in the early days, there was no doubting the radical difference that existed between culture and church. Once Constantine swept in to legalize and even officially sanction Christianity, the boundary lines between church and culture started to blur. Eventually they became almost impossible to distinguish as pastors started to behave like the police and as emperors started to behave like bishops. But once that critical distance between the church as a colony of heaven and the nation was lost, Christians were no longer sure what was what.

Today in our setting these issues are acute and also blood-warming. If you want to set off a fierce argument in many areas of the American church, just suggest that America was not founded by Christian people nor ever intended, therefore, to be a singularly “Christian nation.” Just say that and watch what happens. There are some folks among whom you could not generate much of a discussion on things like the Trinity or the atonement, but question the identity of America as a religious nation, and pulses start to race!

Yet Paul reminds us that within the church we are a colony of heaven first of all, and that this badge of cross-shaped kingdom citizenship must determine our attitudes and actions everywhere we go. That doesn’t mean you never leave the colony or withdraw into only the colony, but it does mean that the church determines our view of everything else. For that to happen, however, you may need a bit of critical distance between church and culture.

The gospel tells us that as God’s colony, we are members one of another. We are accountable to one another, responsible to one another, simply part of one another. Paul concludes this passage talking about a transformation. The day will come, Paul says, when the Lord Jesus Christ will return to transform our earthly bodies into bodies that are like Jesus’ own glorious resurrection body. When you live in God’s colony, that is the direction of the transforming flow: it runs from God’s kingdom to us. If we need to be changed and influenced, all of that comes from God, not from the world around us.

Illustration Idea

In his deeply moving book Open Secrets, Richard Lischer tells of his first three years as a pastor in a small rural town in southern Illinois, near the Missouri border. Fresh out of school, he had been in his new congregation only a week when the phone rang at 3am. It was Ed Franco saying his wife, Doral, was at St. Joe’s hospital with a ruptured gall bladder. Surgery was imminent and things were shaky. “We need you here, if you can,” he said. So Pastor Lischer jumped into the car and took off. He found them in an alcove just off a main corridor of the hospital, flanked by a dingy curtain and a red fire extinguisher on the wall. Ed was nervously patting his wife’s sweat-pasted arm. The Francos were a childless, middle-aged couple who never missed church but whom Pastor Lischer had not yet gotten to know.

As he approached the gurney on which Doral was lying, Ed and Doral looked expectantly at him. It was then Lischer realized he’d forgotten his prayer book, his Bible, and anything else that might help him figure out what he was supposed to say in this situation. Doral was, he says, the most frightened person he’d ever seen, and she was looking right at her pastor! It was very quiet in the alcove, until Pastor Lischer croaked out the only thing he could think of: a scrap of a traditional litany. “The Lord be with you,” he said. “And also with you,” Ed and Doral replied in unison, as though they had been waiting for just this opening. “Lift up your hearts,” Lischer intoned. “We lift them to the Lord,” the Francos shot back. And suddenly, Lischer writes, the Lord himself was in that alcove. He was the Lord of the alcove in that sacred moment and suddenly much that had been disheveled and fevered and sweaty was recomposed. They said a brief prayer together and Doral was soon wheeled away into the O.R., calmer and somehow now ready for surgery.

When you are citizens of God’s heavenly colony, things like that happen now and again no matter where you go in the world–even dimly lit hospital alcoves. As members of the colony, we know a Lord and so have a power and a joy and a comfort the world will never know on its own. We’re here to point them to that Savior and Lord as well and as purely as we can. That is how we also stand firm, my dear friends! Amen.


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