Grace Presbyterian Church
September 20, 2020, Pentecost 16A (prerecorded)
The Revised Common Lectionary offers an opportunity for a brief trip through a brief book of the New Testament, Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. This is, aside from perhaps the very short personal letter to Philemon, perhaps the most unique of Paul’s letters recorded in scripture in at least one very noteworthy way: there isn’t really a big problem going on in the church when Paul writes to it.
Consider: the situation with the Romans was fraught with the fact that Paul didn’t found or help found that church, and indeed had never even been there; why would they trust him? The letters to the Corinthians are full of Paul struggling to correct that church’s misconceptions about living as the body of Christ. The church at Thessalonica, recipient of Paul’s earliest letters, is growing concerned and perhaps even despairing as the anticipated quick return of Christ hasn’t happened and members are starting to die, forcing Paul to do some theology-on-the-fly to reassure them. As for the church in Galatia, their tendency to get hornswoggled by false apostles produces an epistle from Paul that very early (just six verses in) produces the sentence “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel… .” (Later in that same letter, 3:1, comes the terse exclamation “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?”)
By contrast, the folks at Philippi still held Paul in warmest regard, and had sent one of their own, Epaphroditus, to minister to him during his time of imprisonment (and had apparently sent some other support with him to Paul as well). There was no obvious schism or straying in the congregation, and if there was any upset among them it seemed to be more about their concern for Paul than about anything among themselves.
Perhaps as a result Paul seems to be more comfortable opening up to the folks at Philippi about where he was both physically (in prison again) and emotionally. It’s the kind of revealing that might have gotten Paul directed towards therapy if he were to have expressed it in such a fashion today. This first sentence, in verse 21, is more or less sound theology, even if it was still a formative idea at the time. The idea that death was anything other than endless nothingness or a blank space or even some kind of eternal torment was still being worked out among the early Christians, but the idea that there was something and even something good (think of Jesus’s words at the beginning of John 14, for example) was there for the struggling, and Paul is found here grappling with it. This statement itself is not the cause for concern.
What comes in the following verses, on the other hand, might have raised a few Philippian eyebrows. When Paul expresses his uncertainty between living and dying, or even that his desire was to “depart and be with Christ, for that is far better“…well, let’s just say that were I to write that in a letter to this congregation, I’d be hearing from somebody at the presbytery very soon, I suspect.
But Paul concludes quickly that his work on earth with the Philippians (and with other churches along his way, for that matter, though he does not say so here) is not done, and that he is bound to remain in the flesh, no matter the imprisonments or persecutions or other travails he might face. In fact, his purpose might be said to be bound up in those very troubles that he had encountered on his various journeys, including an imprisonment in Philippi itself recounted in Acts 16.
Philippi was described in that chapter as a “Roman colony.” That has a somewhat different meaning than we might think of in early American history, for example. Philippi existed to be many things in service of the Roman empire; a military garrison most likely, a home for retired soldiers, and a location more under the direct control and model of Rome than most other cities. It was a model city, so to speak, for the Roman Empire, with purposes both to demonstrate and perhaps to enforce the power of Rome.
In other words, it was not a good place to live if you were going to declare that anyone other than Caesar was Lord. And guess what the Philippians were called to do, just like Christians in other parts of that empire, just like Christians living today in this particular empire?
The resolution takes root and begins to set the tone for this letter in verse 27. For the Philippians, the relatively stress-free nature of their existence as a church belied their status as a Christian church situated in this Roman-colony city. To “live…in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” was going to come into conflict with a city expressly dedicated to the notion that Caesar was Lord and the Empire was above all. To say that Jesus is Lord is to deny that Caesar (any Caesar of any age) is Lord, and that’s going to get you into conflict inevitably.
Therefore, standing together and living in that way worthy of the Gospel was both a form of bearing witness to the Lordship of Christ and of resisting those who would deny it. But notice what Paul doesn’t say in this passage. There’s no talk of “holy war.” There’s no whipping up folks about raising up some kind of “warrior Christ” who would never be caught dead on a cross (literally, but also pun intended). There’s no talk of taking over the empire for Jesus or making sure to get the right judges or anything like that.
Instead there is the instruction to bear a good witness, to live worthy of the gospel, to be un-intimidated by those who opposed them, and to know that the struggle is coming.
One might recall Jesus’s instructions to his disciples in Matthew 10, including the bracing warning in verse 34 that he came “not to bring peace, but a sword.” Perhaps not much had happened yet to the believers in Philippi, though Paul’s own imprisonment there some time before had no doubt brought them much concern, and Paul’s current imprisonment elsewhere provoked worry again. But Paul knew, and made sure the Philippians knew, that to live as a follower of Christ in the teeth of the Empire was going to bring trouble – the “privilege of suffering for,” not just believing in, Christ. And the same holds true today, no matter what empire one is facing, whether would-be totalitarian government or would-be corporate monolith or would-be mass entertainment and sports complex or whatever seeks to claim our ultimate devotion that can only belong to Jesus.
“Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel…” Paul says it as if that’s such an easy thing to do. And yet that’s our call.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #846, Fight the Good Fight; #285, Like the Murmur of the Dove’s Song