Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 27, 2020
Philippians 2:1-13 Commentary
We sometimes think of tensions within the Church, between churches or among Christians as new phenomena. Christians sometimes assume that, for example, the veritable plethora of denominations and congregations is a somehow recent development.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, however, suggests that tension within and among churches is ancient. After all, tensions in the Philippian church to which Paul writes are causing some members to oppose rather than work with each other in Christian unity. Later Paul even names three Philippians whose arguments endanger their church.
That’s perhaps both encouraging and discouraging. On the one hand, conflict that threatened the very early church’s witness saddens us. While we sometimes think of the early Christian church as a fellowship of flawless saints who markedly impacted their community, Philippians 2 suggests that that’s a myth.
The Philippian church’s struggles, however, also remind us that God is willing and able to use God’s church that is far from perfect anyway. Philippi’s church that wasted so much energy is also, after all, the one God used to alleviate suffering in Jerusalem. This was the flawed church the Lord also used to send converts to help Paul.
So the twenty-first century church’s task isn’t to try to imitate some mythical Philippian church. Nor is our job to learn the spiritual secrets that the early Christians knew but we’ve somehow misplaced. God’s adopted sons and daughters have, in fact, a far better hope: the Christ who was Lord of the Philippian church is also Lord of the 21st century Church.
So we seek his Spirit’s gracious presence today just as the Philippians sought it nearly two thousand years ago. Jesus’ followers seek to let God somehow use us, though we’re no more perfect than the Philippians.
After all, the early church’s tensions have parallels in each succeeding generation of the church. The Philippian divisions that Paul addressed apparently didn’t disappear for decades. Early second century letters suggest that the Philippian church was still wrestling with tensions and division.
Those who make up twenty-first century churches are real people who have sometimes widely varying beliefs about many different subjects. That’s one of the things that makes Christ’s church the dynamic, living organism that it is. It would be a clumsy Body were it entirely made up of “thumbs,” for instance.
So how does Paul address the various Philippian parties? Throughout his letter, he challenges them to think about everything under Jesus Christ’s sovereign guidance. The apostle addresses the tensions in the Philippian church by emphasizing the need for unity that Jesus commended already during his earthly ministry.
He calls them to stand firm in one spirit and work side by side to spread the gospel. However, Paul doesn’t stop there. He also tries to move the Philippians away from focusing on their disagreements to sharpening their focus on the grace God has shown them.
In just the first verse of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson alone, Paul makes four statements that all begin with the word “if…” If these four things are in fact true for the Philippians, he adds, then they have a solid foundation for unity. If the Philippi’s Christians have experienced these four truths, the apostle adds, they must now focus on this foundation.
Yet when at least 21st century North Americans use the word “if,” we generally indicate a degree of uncertainty or outright untruth. You and I say things like, “If the Detroit Lions win the Super Bowl (but they won’t)…” However, the New Testament Greek often used the word “if” in a different way. Paul’s contemporaries would say something like, “If I am your friend (and I am)…” They used this truth as a basis for making a request, teaching something or giving a command.
So in our text we should understand Paul to mean something like, “Since you have encouragement from being united with Christ, be like-minded.” “Since you have fellowship with the Spirit, have the same love.” “Since you have comfort from his love and tenderness and compassion, be one in spirit and purpose.” In other words, the powerful realities of God’s grace form the basis for Paul’s plea for Philippian unity.
The apostle challenges Christians of all times and places to always ask ourselves whether we’ll build on the experiences of encouragement we’ve received from Christ and each other. Or will we ignore that foundation and, instead, focus on the anger and divisions that plague us?
I remember the many conversations I had with a friend who’d grown up in the church but later turned his back on it. Did his childhood church’s theology frustrate, anger or too deeply puzzle him? No, he claimed that the way church members had treated him had driven him away from the church.
Paul understood that such hurt feelings or interpersonal conflicts unnecessarily often fuel church conflicts. So he warns Christians against isolating ourselves because of our grievances. Paul challenges us to focus more on Christ’s encouragement more than our complaints against each other.
However, this requires a kind of putting others in line before ourselves. It requires looking beyond our own needs and interests to the needs and interests of the Christians with whom God surrounds us.
That requires the kind of humility and concern for others that isn’t natural in sinful people, including this Lesson’s hearers and proclaimers. Thankfully, then, God has graciously given us the perfect example of such sacrificial humility: our Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul recites a famous early Christian hymn that expresses Christians’ core belief about our humble Savior’s saving work. In this beautiful hymn all Philippians could sing what they believed, concisely and congregationally. This hymn allowed them to sing about what united rather than divided them.
Today it’s popular for various institutions to have a mission statement that tries to briefly summarize that institution’s purpose. Philippians 2’s hymn does that and more. “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus,” Paul sings. “He made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant… he humbled himself and become obedient to death.”
Paul understood that the Philippian Christians would need the kind of selfless love and care that Jesus showed in order to endure the kind of suffering they were undergoing. In the moments of weakness and fear that would certainly come, they’d be more likely to endure if others lovingly encouraged and prayed for them.
Philippians 2’s hymn reminded the Philippian Christians that Jesus was their model of such a life that pleases God. After all, besides being humble and obedient, he was also compassionate and forgiving. Christ fulfilled the law and did his heavenly Father’s will gladly and perfectly.
Now, says Paul, Jesus’ adopted brothers and sisters try to do something similar, continuing to work out our salvation with “fear and trembling.” In doing so, he’s not calling Christian to try to earn our salvation through fearful and constant work and worry. God’s salvation is always God’s gracious gift that we can only receive with our faith.
What Paul seems to mean is that God’s salvation ought to awaken within God’s adopted children a renewed commitment to persistently living a life that’s consistent with our adoption. God’s salvation ought to prompt you and me to want to live a life that expresses our gratitude to him for it.
In view of everything that God has done, Paul calls Christians to vigorously pursue our Christian calling to faithfully obey the Lord. He challenges Jesus’ followers to follow the example of the humility and obedience of the Christ in whom we, by God’s grace, believe.
God is at work in God’s dearly beloved people, carrying out God’s will, making it real in our lives Jesus’ life’s reality. We, however, are also at work each day of our lives carrying out the implications of that work.
Jesus’ followers rest in the knowledge that our salvation is a wonderful gift that all of our work and worry could never achieve. However, Christians also work to respond appropriately. Salvation that is so total, after all, demands a complete, practical, and daily response.
God’s adopted sons and daughters won’t discover our unity in things like our complete agreement about the kinds of songs we should to sing or coffee we should serve after church. Christians won’t find our unity in theological issues of whom we should baptize and how Christ will return. We won’t discover our unity in which political party or politician we support.
No, the divisions in individual Christians, as well as congregations and denominations are sometimes significant. Yet even if we must sometimes agree to disagree on them, we focus on what unites us: the saving, self-sacrificial work of Jesus Christ.
Many of this Sunday’s Lesson’s proclaimers and hearers live in a society perhaps increasingly marked by division. People of various races increasingly feel alienated from each other. As a result, it sometimes seems as if black, white, Hispanic and Asian Americans do almost nothing, including worship, together voluntarily.
We also live in a society that is increasingly socio-economically stratified. We seal our poor people in our large cities, while walling ourselves off in our gated communities and affluent suburbs. And sadly, I fear, Christians increasingly well ourselves off from each other. We let our differences of opinion about things like climate change and racial reconciliation, baptism and Christ’s return erect high barriers that we seldom find ways to breach.
That’s a reason why the food pantry of the church I serve has been such a source of blessing. We’d had a pantry open once a month for the past seven years. But with the outbreak of the COVID pandemic, a local food bank challenged us to open once a week.
That, however, presented tremendous challenges, including economic and volunteer ones. Our church had budgeted, after all, for a monthly pantry. We’d chosen to have the food pantry open monthly because we also felt that we wouldn’t have enough volunteers to staff it more often than that.
Before this pandemic struck, we served about 100 households of our hungry neighbors on a monthly basis. After it struck, we serve approximately 700 households of our hungry neighbors on a weekly basis.
This simply would not be possible were it not for God’s startling generosity with our pantry. The Giver of our daily bread has startled us nearly weekly with an amazing variety of provisions for our needs.
One of the most stunning ways God has done this is through an incredible variety of supporters and support. Our denomination, as well as local government and businesses have come alongside our ministry with financial support. An amazing variety of houses of worship have provided volunteers and monetary support. And the stream of food donors who are our nearby neighbors never ceases to amaze me.
Just as we don’t discriminate in our distribution on the basis of all the things that otherwise divide us, we don’t make our volunteers or donors subscribe to some kind of doctrinal standard. We simply ask that they serve with love, hospitality and kindness.
Those who proclaim Philippians 2 may feel free to borrow this example of looking to the interests of others. Or we might find more local examples of such like-mindedness. Or maybe, just maybe, we might find ways to express that unity in our own lives.
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