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[Jesus said] “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.  2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.  3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them;  4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.  5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept.  6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’  7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps.  8 The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’  9 But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’  10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut.  11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’  12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’  13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” – Matthew 25:1-13

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Artwork: The Parable of the Ten Virgins (section) by Phoebe Traquair, Mansfield Traquair Church, Edinburgh

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Today’s parable about the wise and foolish bridesmaids is a familiar story for clergy and congregations alike. It is – or at least seems to be – a straightforward story with a simple message, which is: “be ready.” Or “be prepared” as the Boy Scouts would say.

But as I was looking at this parable this week, I realized it’s not quite that simple.  Being prepared is only part of Jesus’ point.  The main point is in the last sentence following the word therefore: “Therefore keep awake for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (And some translations add, “in which the Son of Man comes.”)

So Jesus is talking about his return at the end of the age, and his main point is nobody knows when he’s coming back.

Jesus isn’t telling us this parable to make us paranoid. We don’t need to be thinking, every minute of every day, “what would Jesus say if he came back right now and saw me doing this?” It’s not like the old t-shirt that says, “Jesus is coming… look busy!”

Jesus is not trying to make us unbearably self-concious.  But he is telling us to be aware of how we invest our time.  We only have so much time in this life to get to know God, and to grow up into the children of God we were born to be. So Jesus is saying “stay awake, stay on your toes!”

And yet… as we look at this story of the bridesmaids, we see that none of them stays awake!  The wise ones and foolish ones alike grow drowsy and nod off.

So if Jesus’ point is “stay awake”, and none of the bridesmaids manage to do that, then what?

Often in scripture when Jesus told parables, the disciples would pull him aside later and ask, ‘what did you mean by that?’… but in this case they didn’t. So I think our best bet is to start with what we know, and then work our way into what’s less clear. And there are at least five things that we know about this story:

First, we know this is a parable about the kingdom of heaven. Jesus says so in the first sentence: “the kingdom of heaven will be like this”. So the story is about the time, sometime in the future, when God will restore creation to its original glory at the end of the age.

Second, this parable is the first of three parables Jesus tells in Matthew chapter 25 about the end of the age.  The other two parables are: (1) the parable of the talents (where three men are given 10 talents, 5 talents, and 1 talent, respectively, and the first two go out and earn more, but the third man buries his talent and gives the master back only the one. Jesus says to the first two “well done good and faithful servant” but says to the last “you wicked and lazy servant”.  And then parable number (2) is the parable of the sheep and the goats on the judgement day, when Jesus says to the sheep on his right hand “come, blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom” but says to the goats on his left hand, “depart from me into the eternal fire”.  And both the sheep and the goats say to him, “When did we ever see you hungry or naked or in need, and help you (or not help you)?” And Jesus answers “as much as you did it (or didn’t do it) to one of the least of these, you did it (or didn’t do it) to me.”

So in all three parables in Matthew 25, the human race is being divided into two groups, based on what each person did in their lives. And one group is welcomed into the kingdom and the other group is not.

These stories make us uncomfortable: because if we truly love our fellow human beings we don’t ever want to think of anyone as being excluded from God’s kingdom.  (Which by the way is why mission and outreach are so critically important.)

On top of that it’s frightening to hear Jesus say words like “I don’t know you” and “depart from me” – because we begin to wonder if we’ve done enough in our lives… and we cry out to God for mercy (which is exactly the right thing to do, because our God is gracious and delights in showing mercy).

Third, we know that Jesus told these parables only two or three days before he went to the cross.  They are part of Jesus’ final instructions to his disciples.  In a way they’re a dying man’s last words.  Jesus is not going to be with the disciples much longer, so he’s telling them – and us – what we’re going to need to know in his absence.

Fourth, we know what some of the people and events in the parable represent.  We know the bridegroom represents Jesus, and the bridegroom’s arrival represents Jesus’ second coming. The bridesmaids in this story represent the people who follow Jesus, that is, churchgoers or Christians. (In most end-time parables in the Bible, the church is represented by the Bride. But in this particular story we don’t see the bride, and the church is represented by the bridesmaids.)

Fifth, we hear Jesus repeating himself.  In Matt. 24:36 he says “about that day and hour no one knows.” In Matt. 24:44 he says, “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” and in Matt. 25:13 he says, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”  When Jesus repeats himself three times – we need to be paying attention!

So with all this as background, let’s take a look at the story.

Jesus says: “the kingdom of heaven will be like this.  There were ten bridesmaids who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.”

Of course wedding traditions have changed over the years.  Back in those days, the wedding was arranged, and the couple made their promises and vows (such as they were) at the betrothal.  The groom would then go and prepare a place for his bride – build a house, furnish it, gather together whatever was needed to raise a family – and when everything was ready, the invitation to the wedding feast would go out. On that day the groom would come and claim his bride from her father’s house, and take her to the banquet, and from there they would go home to their new home together.

And when the invitation went out it didn’t read “wedding at four, reception at six” like in our day. The invitation would arrive word-of-mouth and would tell the date of the groom’s arrival, and that’s all!  Usually the groom would arrive after dark, so the job of the bridesmaids was to light the path for the groom to the banquet hall. Partly this was to make the path visible, and partly it was a beautiful thing to see, it set the mood.

So the bridesmaids have only one job: to carry lamps to provide light.

So the bridesmaids who were wise took extra oil with them, in case the groom might be delayed.  The bridesmaids who were foolish figured, “naaah, he’ll be on time” and didn’t bother to bring anything extra.

And as it happened, the groom was delayed.  In fact he was much later than expected, and all the bridesmaids, whose job was to watch and wait and light the path, fell asleep.  And then at midnight the cry came, “the groom is here! Come out to meet him!”  And the bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps and went out to light the way, but the foolish bridesmaids realized their lamps were going out.

So they said to their companions “give us some of your oil”. But the wise said, “No. If we do, we won’t have enough for ourselves. Go to the vendors and buy some.”

This may sound like a cold-hearted answer, especially after all the things Jesus has taught us about generosity and giving and sharing. Why would they say “no”? (Especially considering the oil vendors weren’t likely to be open at midnight.)

Because the wise bridesmaids are right: at a time like this, each of us must supply our own oil. Because the oil in the story represents our relationship with with God: and that’s something each one of us must do for ourselves. God has no stepchildren. Each of us individually must become children of God, believing in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross to forgive our sins, and praying to receive the Holy Spirit. Nobody can do it for us.

So the story continues: the foolish bridesmaids dash off to try to find an oil vendor, and while they’re gone, the groom arrives, and the wise bridesmaids light his way to the feast, and they all go in, and the door is shut.

Some time later – probably hours later – the foolish bridesmaids return with their lamps and their oil (which are no longer needed at this point because the sun is coming up) and they say “open the door to us – we’re part of the wedding party too.” But the bridegroom says to them, “I don’t know you.”

…God forbid…

It’s tempting to take this story to mean that the things we do in our lives earn us a place at the heavenly banquet. It’s tempting to think Jesus is teaching ‘salvation by works’. But that’s not the meaning at all.  It is impossible for anyone to earn their way into heaven.

What Jesus is describing here, in the lives of these bridesmaids, are actions and habits of mind that are the result of, and the outworking of, what the people in the story truly believe. And this is true in all three of the parables in Matthew 25: whether bringing extra oil, or investing talents, or giving food and water to the hungry and thirsty, are all done because the people in the story know and believe and love God.

Jesus says, “you know neither the day nor the hour.”  When the cry goes out, “the bridegroom is here!” – it will be too late to develop the habits of mind, or to invest the talents, or to fill our lamps with the Holy Spirit’s oil.

In our parable, when all the bridesmaids sleep – while it’s not clear from the story – this may represent the sleep of death.  Because when Jesus returns, the vast majority of people who have lived on the earth, including ourselves, will most likely have passed into eternal slumber.  And it is Jesus’ voice that will call us back to life when that day comes.  It is always, always, God’s power and God’s grace that saves us.  We can’t save ourselves, any more than a dead person can raise themselves. But when Jesus calls, we will rise.

And when he calls, we will pick up our lamps and light the way to the wedding feast. And the things we have done for God in our lifetime – having faith, trusting God, receiving the Holy Spirit, obeying God’s word, loving and caring for God’s people – these things will become the oil in our lamps.

In the Greek, the ‘foolishness’ of the foolish bridesmaids is not a matter of intelligence or education.  The Greek word has shades of moral meaning. In the Greek definition, wisdom is knowing what is right and doing it.  Foolishness is knowing what is right and choosing not to do it, or to put it off.

As a side note, for those of us who have experienced setbacks in life – difficulties in careers, or in relationships, or in education – or who have had family issues, or health issues, or have faced poverty or neglect or violence – these things do not exclude us from Godly wisdom. God says in Isaiah 42:3, speaking of the Messiah: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not extinguish”. So each one of us should take whatever light we have, and go and meet the bridegroom.

But for those who say “ahhh, there’s always tomorrow” – “I’ll take care of it tomorrow” – “I’ll do what God wants eventually” – “I don’t have to deal with my bad habits today. There’s always tomorrow” – no, there isn’t always tomorrow.

I know many people here have already made the decision to follow Jesus and are already working on putting oil in their lamps.  I encourage you to keep on doing that.

If there are any here who have not yet decided to follow Jesus and would like to, please see me after the service.  And if there’s anyone here still thinking “I’ve still got tomorrow” – there’s no guarantee of that. Don’t wait.

The parable of the bridesmaids basically reminds us to stay on our toes, spiritually speaking.  To keep on with prayer; to keep on with reading scripture (both on our own and together with others), to keep on helping those in need, and to keep on staying close to our Lord Jesus. Because ultimately the oil comes from him… and only a foolish bridesmaid would look for it anywhere else.

God’s blessings as we struggle to stay awake and keep our lamps burning. AMEN.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 11/12/17

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Nine years ago I wrote a post called “What Is the Great Cloud of Witnesses?” that talked about the saints who have gone before us — both those whose names are known in the Bible or in history, and those whose names are known by very few.

All of them together make up the “great cloud of witnesses” — people whose lives and actions have shown us the goodness and saving power of God, people who I believe are now in God’s kingdom cheering us on.

At the end of the original post I invited readers to write the names of the people in their own cloud of witnesses (suggesting first names only for privacy).  Today, All Saints Day, I wanted to open that invitation again.  Below please share the names of the people you know who are in the Great Cloud of Witnesses in glory with God.

Thanks be to God for their prayers and their love.

 

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“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.  3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh,  4 so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.  5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.  6 To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.  7 For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law– indeed it cannot,  8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.  9 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” – Romans 8:1-9

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Luther

500 years ago this week was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. To be exact, 500 years ago on Oct 31, 1517.  On that day Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenburg Germany, hoping to inspire reform in the Catholic Church, but instead his words inspired thousands of people to join in the protest, and these people became known as ‘protest-ents’ or ‘Protestants’.

This 500th anniversary, then, is not so much something to celebrate as it is to remember. We don’t celebrate division in the church, because we believe in one God and one Lord Jesus Christ and one eternal destiny for all who love God. There is no division in Jesus.

So Reformation Day for us is kind of like Memorial Day.  On Memorial Day we don’t celebrate war because war is not a thing to celebrate; but we honor those who served, and especially we honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice so that we could live in freedom.

In the same way, when we remember the Reformation, we honor those men and women who stood up for God, who stood up for truth and justice, who stood up for God’s word, and especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice so that we could know God.

So it is fitting to remember the events that happened 500 years ago.

By the time Luther was born, the church in Rome had held practically unquestioned power over the churches in Western Europe for nearly 1000 years.  (Eastern Europe and Asia were led by the Orthodox Church, and Africa by the Coptic Church, but neither of these had much influence in western Europe.) And, as often happens, power corrupts.

Luther was a Catholic monk and priest who wanted to reform the Roman Catholic church from the inside.  At the same time there were many other monks, nuns, and religious scholars who loved God and studied the scriptures, and as they studied – and as they did their best to bring their lives into line with God’s will as they understood it – the more they ran into difficulty with Rome.

The issue that finally sparked the Reformation, at least in the public eye, was the issue of selling indulgences.  (Like most issues, even today, there’s what’s happening in the public eye and then there’s what’s really happening behind the scenes. The issue in the public eye was selling indulgences.)  Indulgences were – and to some extent still are in the Catholic Church – ways “to reduce the amount of punishment one has to undergo for sins” after one dies. This has nothing to do with salvation. In the teaching of the Catholic Church, even a person who is saved still needs to be cleansed (or “purged”) of their sins before entering heaven.  So a person passes through purge-atory or purgatory. And indulgences were meant to reduce the amount of time spent in purgatory. In our day indulgences can be earned by (for example) making a pilgrimage to a holy place, or by performing good works; but in Luther’s day indulgences were for sale and the money was used for things like repairing the Sistine Chapel or furnishing the Pope’s living quarters.

Martin Luther first became aware of this when he traveled to Rome in 1510 on behalf of his monastery.  At that time Luther was a young and idealistic monk, and he couldn’t wait to see the Holy City with his own eyes.  When he arrived, he fell to his knees and exclaimed, “Hail to thee, holy Rome! Thrice holy for the blood of the martyrs shed here!” – referring to Peter and Paul, who had been martyred in Rome.

But what Luther discovered in the church in Rome shocked and disillusioned him. He witnessed gluttony, and gambling, and any number of vices, and very little concern for the poor.  Later on Luther described his visit this way – he wrote: “The Church of Rome … has become the most lawless den of thieves, the most shameless of all brothels, the very kingdom of sin, death and hell…”

And indeed history tells us the Catholic church was in deep trouble at this point in time. There were many people inside the church at that time trying to work for reform; Luther was by far not the only one.

But Luther returned home to Germany in a spiritual dilemma. The question he was asking himself was not ‘how can I be a part of this corrupt organization?’ – in those days a person didn’t simply walk away from the Roman Catholic church – there was nowhere else to go. But Luther’s dilemma was this: how can any person be good enough for God?  When Luther saw sin in others, he was humble enough to see it in himself as well.  And he knew God’s standards were impossible for any human being to meet.

Luther wrote:

My situation was that, although [I was] an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would [satisfy] (assuage) [God]. Therefore I did not love a just, angry God, but rather hated and murmured against Him.

 In other words, Luther was angry at God for demanding the impossible.

But when Luther read Romans 1:17 it stuck in his mind. In that verse Paul writes: “In [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘the righteous shall live by faith.’”

Luther wrote:

I greatly longed to understand Paul’s epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression “the righteousness of God,” because I took it to mean… that righteousness whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. […]

Let me step aside here for a second, because Luther’s interpretation, Luther’s understanding – that the “righteousness of God” had to do with God justly punishing the unrighteous sinner – was the common understanding of God’s righteousness in those days.  This was the definition taught by Thomas Aquinas and other leading theologians for 400 years before Luther was born. Righteousness by grace through faith had been almost completely lost, and it had been replaced by church traditions like making pilgrimages or buying indulgences.  It calls to mind the words of Jesus when he said to the Pharisees, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God.” (Matt 15:6)

As a result Luther took no comfort in the very words that Paul had written to comfort imperfect people.

Luther continues in his writing:

Yet I clung to Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.  Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the righteousness of God and the statement that “the just shall live by faith.” Then I grasped that the righteousness of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before “the righteousness of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven…”

It is my prayer for all of us, myself included, that we will hold onto God with the tenacity that Martin Luther did, and never let go.  Because all of us, at one time or another, will have issues with God, or with the scriptures, or questions we can’t find answers to.  I pray we will keep on holding onto God and keep on digging for answers, and not give up, until (as it did for Luther) doubt becomes certainty and faith becomes sight.

Martin Luther later wrote that this moment of revelation was the true beginning of the Reformation; the ‘real story behind the scenes’. This was the moment when Luther took God at God’s word, and it’s what made all the difference.

With his new understanding of grace and faith, the selling of indulgences – which before had looked like a simple injustice – now is understood as actually blocking people’s access to God’s forgiveness.  Luther could no longer remain silent.

So he brought the issue to the church’s attention on October 31, 1517.  And the church would not tolerate what it saw as heresy and mutiny. Luther was excommunicated and probably would have been martyred if he had not been kidnapped by his friends and carted off to an old castle.  While in hiding, Luther translated the New Testament from Greek into German (which was also not permitted by the church, because Latin was the only language permitted in the church). But Luther believed the people should be able to read the scriptures in their own language, and so he made the translation.

Luther survived all the death threats and legal actions that were taken against him, but not everyone who supported him did.  In 1523, two years after Luther’s “kidnapping”, the first Lutheran martyrs were burned at the stake. Two years after that, Luther was visited by the English scholar Tyndale, who (at Luther’s encouragement) published the first English translation of the New Testament. Tyndale paid for it with his life: he was hung and then burned at the stake.

I think it’s important to remember, whenever we pick up our Bibles, that people have given their lives so we could have this.  Just like we give thanks for those who have died for our freedoms, even more so we give thanks for those who died so God’s word and God’s promise of eternal life could be ours.

So in the coming week as we think about the Reformation:

  • When you have a moment look over the Reformation Timeline. There was a lot happening in the world during Martin Luther’s lifetime, and this helps make sense of the events that were happening during the Reformation.
  • The Reformation reminds us God takes sin seriously – as true today as back in Luther’s day. Luther was on the mark with the questions he was asking. He understood what the scriptures were saying.  God does require righteousness, and the requirement is  But rather than leading us to despair, scripture leads us to…
  • … God’s gift of righteousness by grace through faith. Two hundred years later, give or take a few decades, John Wesley was as firm and clear about this as Luther was. Wesley wrote:“All the blessings God has bestowed upon men and women are of his grace, his free, undeserved favor. We have no claim to the least of His mercies.

    “It was… grace that “formed [people] out of the dust of the ground, and breathed into [them] living souls,” and stamped on [those souls] the image of God. The same free grace continues to us… And whatever righteousness may be found in us… is also the gift of God.

    Wesley continues: “With what then can we atone for even the least of our sins? With our works? Even if our works are many and holy, they are not our own, but God’s. Therefore, having nothing — neither righteousness nor works… our mouths are (utterly) stopped before God. If, then, we find favor with God, it is “grace upon grace!” “Christian faith is a full reliance on the blood of Christ; it is a trust in the merits of His life, death, and resurrection.” “By grace you have been saved through faith.”

Wesley understood where Luther was coming from.  And in the 500 years since Luther, the message hasn’t changed, and the faith hasn’t changed, and God’s grace and mercy haven’t changed.  Our job is to be true to the faith we have received, from the saints who have gone before us, and pass it on to the people we know and to the next generation.

With thanks to God for His great grace and mercy, AMEN.

 

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 10/29/17

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“Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.  2 I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.  3 Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.  4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.  5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.  6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.  9 Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.  10 I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it.  11 Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have.  12 I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.  13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.  14 In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.  15 You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone.  16 For even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me help for my needs more than once.  17 Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that accumulates to your account.  18 I have been paid in full and have more than enough; I am fully satisfied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.  19 And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” – Philippians 4:1-19

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Over the past month we’ve been working our way through Philippians, and today is our final installment.  Paul’s letter to the Philippians has been, and is, a letter filled with joy.  It’s probably one of the few letters Paul wrote (that’s published in the Bible) where he’s not addressing some kind of crisis. (He addresses a few issues, but no major crises).

Before I dig into chapter four, I wanted to share something I read by theologian N.T. Wright this past week, which has a bearing on Paul’s message.  Wright was talking about Jesus’ Ascension into heaven, and he commented, “I know churches where there’s a great… window with a picture of the Ascension… and all you can see [of Jesus] is a cloud with two feet sticking down.”  Wright goes on to say first-century Jews wouldn’t have seen the Ascension that way.  They would not have conceived of heaven as being somewhere in our universe.  Wright says in the New Testament, when people talked about Jesus coming back again, often the word used is “appears” rather than “descends” – “as though [Jesus is] behind an invisible curtain and one day the curtain will be removed and we will discover he’s been there all along.”

That ‘other reality behind the curtain’, as Wright puts it, is the reality of the Kingdom of God – and we are going to catch a couple of glimpses behind that curtain in the fourth chapter of Philippians.

So turning to the fourth chapter of Paul’s letter.  Like any letter from a loving father, Paul’s letter is full of advice.  And in this chapter, Paul’s advice falls into one of two general categories: (1) advice on generosity and giving; and (2) how to live the faith in daily life.  In this chapter living the faith comes first and giving comes second… but since it won’t be too long before we’re in stewardship time, let’s look at Paul’s comments on giving first.

As Paul is writing his letter, he has just received a generous gift from the Philippians to help support him while he’s in jail.  And Paul’s initial response is somewhat surprising. He says: “I rejoice in the Lord greatly for your concern for me” but then he immediately follows with “not that I’m in need, for I’ve learned to be content with whatever I have.” Paul says he knows how to live with little or plenty, how to be well-fed or how to be hungry. He says “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me; in any case it was kind of you to share my distress.”

Kind of an odd thank-you note isn’t it? It almost sounds like Paul is saying “thanks for the gift but I really didn’t need it.”

But then Paul calls to mind the other times when the Philippians have been generous with him.  When Paul left Macedonia, they were the only ones who supported him; and when he was ministering in Thessalonica, they helped out more than once; and I’m sure there were more times that Paul doesn’t list in his letter.

Paul then adds:

“Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that accumulates to your account. I have been paid in full and have more than enough… the gifts you sent are a fragrant offering and a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.”

I think we could do with a bit more of this mind-set in the church.  Too often I’ve heard messages that say (or hint at) “without your money this ministry is in danger of shutting down”.  This is an attitude of fear rather than faith. We may be rich, we may be poor, but if God’s will is being done the church will continue.  For those who give, I pray for God’s blessing, as Paul prays for God’s blessing, for ‘the profit that accumulates to your account’.

Because for Paul the focus of verse 17 is “the profit that accumulates” (or in the Greek, “super-abounds”) to the accounts of those who give.

This is not a give-so- you-can-get kind of thing – that’s another mistake I often hear from a lot of pulpits. We don’t give so we can test God’s generosity.  We don’t give $100 hoping to get $1000 back. But in God’s economy, the oiko-nomos, the rule of the house, is one of continual giving and receiving, back and forth like in the dance of a relationship; except that as the giving is happening, it multiplies as it goes around. This is how it is in God’s economy – this is God’s doing – and it’s a glimpse behind the curtain of the Kingdom breaking into our reality.

Just about the entire letter of Philippians describes this Godly economy in one way or another: In chapter two, Paul talks about how “Christ, though he was in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant…” and then when all was said and done, “God exalted him and gave him the name above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow…”  First Jesus gives, and then God gives… and both are blessed.

In chapter three, Paul talks about how he himself, whatever he gained from being raised a Jew and a Pharisee, he “counts it all as rubbish… for the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”  Paul gave up his past, his heritage, and God gave him a future.  And both are blessed. In short, in the words of missionary Jim Elliot, we as Christians give up what we cannot keep in order to gain what we cannot lose.

Paul’s second subject in this chapter – advice on how to live the faith – is also scattered throughout the letter, but the one theme that keeps coming back is the command, “be of the same mind”.  And again as we listen to Paul’s words we catch a glimpse of that Kingdom behind the curtain:

  • Phil 1:27 – stand firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the gospel
  • Phil 2:2 – be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind
  • Phil 2:5 – Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…
  • Phil 2:14 – Do all things without murmuring and arguing
  • Phil 3:15 – Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind
  • Philippians 4:2 – I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.

Euodia and Syntyche were not, as has sometimes been suggested, a couple of troublesome neighborhood gossips who had gotten on each other’s last nerves.  Paul describes the two women as “co-workers in the gospel”, two people who have struggled alongside Paul in his ministry, “together with Clement and the rest of Paul’s co-workers”.  These two were no spiritual lightweights!  It is possible for two deeply spiritual lovers-of-God to disagree on something.

Paul’s solution to the problem does not include sitting them down and teaching them proper church doctrine, or holding a conclave to allow the majority to decide which of the two of them is right.  Rather, Paul says in Greek, “Euodia, parakaleo; Syntyche, parakaleo”para as in parallel, and kaleo as in call – “I call you together”. And then he says to the disciples, “help these women, whose names are in the book of life.”

Christian unity is not the same thing as agreeing on everything.  Paul’s letter to the Philippians gives us a picture – a blueprint – for how to be one in Christ: how that unity is built, what it looks like.

And it all comes back to where we begin: with God’s love. Human love is imperfect; God’s love is perfect.  And here we catch a glimpse behind that curtain again.  Paul says, “press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 3:14)  What we’ve known here on earth is “rubbish” compared to knowing Jesus.

So how do we start? Paul says:

“finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable (or venerable), whatever is just, whatever is pure (or holy, or innocent), whatever is pleasing (or lovely), whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence (or virtue) and if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things.”  Why? Because of such are the Kingdom of Heaven.

Interestingly, the phrase “think on these things” in the Greek is taken from the language of accounting. A better translation might be, “Keep track of these things”. Stick them on your refrigerator. Track them on am Excel spreadsheet and give a monthly report.

Can you imagine if we actually did that? Keeping a list of all the good and lovely things around us on a spreadsheet? We’d start looking for spreadsheet-worthy things in everything around us: even in people whose points of view differ from ours… even in our enemies.

It may sound a little Pollyanna-ish; and there are certainly times when we need to talk about difficult issues.  But in the book of Matthew, Jesus says to the Pharisees:

“out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. 35 The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure…” (Matt 12:34-36)

If we fill our minds and hearts with good things, then good things will come out of our mouths. And then words become actions, and actions become unity.  Not that we’re ever going to see perfection in this life – but it will lead us in the direction of the Kingdom.

It’s kind of like the old Christian comedian said: “If you do all the things scripture says to do, you won’t have time to do the don’ts.”  In the same way, if we strive to think about and speak about “good stuff” – we won’t have time to be complaining. And life will change. And so I lay down the challenge, for all of us, myself included.

“…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”  Share these things. And the God of peace will be with you – right there on the other side of that curtain, closer than the air we breathe.

And so to wrap up his letter, Paul says to the Philippians: you have done well and are doing well. Stand firm and don’t allow yourselves to be divided or distracted or misled by false teachers.  Keep on loving God, keep on loving each other, and God will abundantly supply all your needs according to his riches in Christ Jesus.

May this blessing be upon us all. AMEN.

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Paul writes: “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” – Philippians 3:4-14

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Last weekend I had the joy of officiating at my first-ever wedding ceremony as an ordained minister. The couple who were getting married were one of those couples who you just know belong together. During our planning meetings I asked the couple to find a scripture reading that expressed their love for each other, something we could use during the ceremony.  They chose an unusual passage from the Song of Solomon:

“Hang my locket around your neck,
wear my ring on your finger.
Love is invincible facing danger and death.
Passion laughs at the terrors of hell.
The fire of love stops at nothing—
it sweeps everything before it.
Flood waters can’t drown love,
torrents of rain can’t put it out.
Love can’t be bought, love can’t be sold—
it’s not to be found in the marketplace.
If one were to give all the wealth of his house for love
It would be utterly scorned.” – Song of Solomon 8:7-8 (edited)

What a passionate passage!

In our reading from Philippians today, the apostle Paul shows the same passionate love for Jesus.  He says: “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Paul was willing to risk everything, and lose everything life has to offer, in order to know Jesus and become more like him.

Love like this is the greatest thing life has to offer!

The world tries to offer us all kinds of cheap imitations – celebrity-worship, wealth, fame, politics, popularity, success – but like Solomon said, love is not to be found in the marketplace. In fact the kind of love Paul is talking about is very costly.

As an example: I remember back when I was in middle school, former Beatle George Harrison came out with a song called “Give Me Love”.  Some of you might remember it:

“Give me love, give me love,
Give me peace on earth,
Give me light, give me life,
Keep me free from birth
Give me hope, help me cope
With this heavy load
Trying to touch and reach you with heart and soul…”

The song is a prayer (if you have any doubts about that, take a close look at the liner notes sometime).  Back in those days, Harrison was a devout Hindu, and he took a LOT of flak for going public with his religion.  The media – especially the rock ‘n’ roll press – had nothing good to say about him, and his live concerts were shredded in the reviews (in spite of the fact the concerts were very good).

As a teenager watching all this, what I saw was a man who loved his god passionately and was willing to take all the fame and fortune of a Beatle and put it on the line for the god he loved.  As a Christian, I was wishing it was Jesus he was in love with… but even so, I was touched by the depth of commitment and passion Harrison sang about in his songs. And when I looked around at the church back then, with rare exceptions, very few people I knew were willing to put their reputations on the line for God like that.

I also learned this kind of passionate love for God is attractive (at least for some)… or scary (for others)… either way it is noticed and it holds people’s attention. When hearts are on fire with love for God, people notice.

So it became my prayer back then: to learn how to love Jesus that much. And I can’t say I’ve quite gotten there yet – I’m still working on it.  I also prayed that God would lead me to other people who love Jesus that much, who could show me how it’s done, and God has answered that prayer and still is answering it.

Paul is one of those people who loves Jesus that much and can show us how it’s done.  So let’s listen to what he has to say:

Paul starts out today’s passage talking about ‘having confidence in the flesh’.  To get his meaning we need to back up a few verses, where Paul says “beware of those who work evil, who mutilate the flesh, for it is we who are the circumcision.” (Phil. 3:2-3 paraphrased)

What Paul is referring to is false teachers who are trying to tell the Gentile believers they have to be circumcised in order to be saved.  Paul is saying there is nothing we can do, in or to the body, that can make us holy – because true circumcision is circumcision of the heart. We who worship, worship in spirit and in truth, and we boast in Christ, not in the flesh.

Paul goes on to say “if anyone were to have reason to be confident in the flesh, I would be above them all.”  Paul was circumcised at eight days old, he was born an Israelite in the tribe of Benjamin; he was a Pharisee and a persecutor of the church, he was absolutely blameless under the Law of Moses. Going by Old Testament righteousness, Paul was about as holy as a person could get.

But Paul says “whatever profit I had, I consider it loss because of Christ”.  Another way to translate this phrase might be “whatever gains I made, I consider them damage.”  Not just losing the profit, but actual damage.

Paul goes on to say, “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish…” (the Greek translation could also be ‘offscourings’… that gross stuff that gets stuck to the bottom of the frying pan when food gets burned, that you have to scrape off) – “I consider everything as offscourings in order than I may gain Christ.”

Paul gave up his family life, hometown, native country, career, reputation, his standing in the community – he went from being a promising up-and-comer in the temple to being in jail. He gave up freedom, he gave up possessions, he lost his physical health, basically he lost everything – and he says “I regard it all as offscourings in order to know Jesus, and gain Christ, and to be found in Him, not standing in my own righteousness but in the righteousness from God…”

Not every Christian is called by God to give up all the things Paul gave up, though we may be called on to give up some of them. The point is, Jesus means so much to Paul, that he doesn’t even miss these things just so long as he can know Jesus.

And then Paul says “becoming like him in his death”. Paul is not suggesting trying to get crucified, and he is not suggesting his own death has any redeeming power.  The Greek expression here is more like “to come together with Jesus and be changed into his likeness”. Not Paul changing himself – Paul being changed by a power outside himself.

“Not that I have already received it” Paul says, “but I pursue to overtake and apprehend it, because I have been overtaken and apprehended by Jesus”. (Read that again…)

Isn’t that just like love? It’s like the old saying “he chased her until she caught him”. Paul is pursuing Jesus until Jesus catches him… and then Paul begins to change and become like Jesus.

So Paul says, “Forgetting what is behind and stretching out for what is ahead, I pursue the goal of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

This kind of love is profoundly different from anything the world has to offer. In our culture I think people are hungering for authenticity, joy, purpose, direction — and this is where it’s to be found.  This kind of love is noticed, and it’s what attracts people to Jesus. The kind of love Paul has for Jesus is the most compelling witness there is.

Paul says “I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his suffering…” – and I’d like to focus on each one of those ideas just for a moment:

“I want to know Christ…” Paul is talking about…

  • Jesus, the Son of God who came to earth as a helpless baby.
  • Who grew up in a family, just like us.
  • Jesus, who welcomed children and said “Let the little children come to me… for… to such as these the kingdom of heaven belongs.” (Matt 19:14)
  • Jesus, who looked in the temple and saw it full of moneychangers and dealers, and was so angry that people were being prevented coming to God that he turned over their tables and threw them out saying “it is written, ‘my house shall be called a house of prayer’ but you have made it a den of thieves.”
  • Jesus, who looked at the woman caught in adultery and then looked at her accusers, and said, “whoever is without sin… cast the first stone”… and then said to her, “neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”
  • Jesus, who said, “come to me, you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.”
  • Jesus, who said, “I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” (Rev. 22?16)

Who could look at Jesus and not love him? Who could hear his words, and not want to be with him?  And then Paul continues: “…[I want to know] the power of Jesus’ resurrection…”

  • The power of Jesus’ resurrection begins with Jesus himself. The grave could not hold him.  The love of God is more powerful than death
  • Jesus said: “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.” (John 10:18)
  • Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26)
  • The apostle John said: “to all who received [Jesus], who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (John 1:12)
  • And Paul writes in I Corinthians: “I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.  […] then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”  The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Cor 15:51-57)

Paul wants to know Jesus, and the power of his resurrection. AND Paul wants to share in his sufferings.  In other words, if Jesus is going to suffer, he’s not going to suffer alone.  Paul is going to stand with Jesus no matter what, and in the words of the late Tom Petty, he “won’t back down”.

Unlike Jesus’ suffering, our suffering can’t save anyone.  But we can stand with Jesus as his friends, and when we do we will share in his sufferings. Think about some of the things Jesus suffered in his lifetime:

  • Jesus and his family were refugees in Egypt when he was a child
  • Jesus suffered temptation and hunger
  • Jesus said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:20)
  • Jesus was rejected by the people in his own hometown.
  • Jesus was harassed by the religious leaders – the very people who should have known who he was and been on his side.
  • Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, was brutally murdered for his loyalty to Jesus.
  • Jesus was accused of serving the devil and/or being the devil. He said to his disciples, “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!  So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.” (Matt 10:25-26)

As Jesus’ followers, we may suffer some of these things, and when we do, Jesus says “Rejoice! For in the same way they persecuted the prophets who came before you.”

When we think about all that Jesus suffered for us, before we even knew him, how can anyone not love him?  Which brings us back to the beginning of Paul’s thought: “I want to know Jesus”.

There’s a church in the south of England where, when a preacher walks into the pulpit, they see a plaque that reads, “we would see Jesus” – a reminder to the preacher to stick to what’s important. I hope we’ve caught a glimpse of Jesus this morning.

The challenge for us, now, is to look at our lives and remember those times when we have seen Jesus working in our own lives… when Jesus’ words have touched us, when our lives have become different because we know Jesus. These things become part of our story – that we can share with others, so they can know Jesus too.

But just for today, we join with Paul in saying “not that we have already attained it, but we press on to make it our own” so that we can know Jesus, and stand with him in his sufferings, and know the power of Jesus’ resurrection both now and in the age to come. AMEN

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 10/8/17

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“For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.  Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.  Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well – since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.”  – Philippians 1:21-30

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Welcome to week two of our series in Philippians.  Last week we kicked off the series by setting the scene for this letter, and this week we begin to dig into the meat of Paul’s message.  Before I do, just a quick review of the cast of characters in this correspondence. Last week we met:

The apostle Paul – the author of the letter, who also wrote probably about half the New Testament.  Paul was born and raised in Tarsus in Syria, and moved to Jerusalem as a young man to study with the Pharisee Gamaliel who was one of the greatest teachers of the time. (Gamaliel is mentioned in Acts 5 where his address to the council saves Peter’s life after he was arrested.) Eventually Paul became a Pharisee himself, and when Christianity came along, Paul persecuted the church because he believed they were teaching heresy… until the day he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. Jesus called Paul to be the apostle to the Gentiles, and at the time Philippians is being written, Paul is in jail awaiting trial, most likely in Rome. We also met…

Timothy – Paul’s disciple and pastor-in-training.  Timothy traveled with Paul on many of his missionary journeys. While Timothy was not arrested, he was with Paul to provide for Paul’s needs while Paul is in jail. Back in those days jails didn’t supply much so it was necessary to have a friend ‘on the outside’ who could bring in what was needed, and that’s what Timothy was doing. We also met…

“The saints in Philippi” – Philippi was the first European city where the gospel of Jesus Christ was preached – and when Paul preached there, one of the first believers was a woman named Lydia, who was a dealer in purple cloth.  She was wealthy enough to have a house big enough to host the Philippian church.  We also heard about…

The Imperial Guard – who were the elite Roman troops whose job it was to protect the Emperor and his household, and who were also guarding Paul.  So because of Paul’s imprisonment, the Imperial Guard and members of the royal household were hearing the good news of Jesus, and some were becoming believers… and Paul is thrilled with this.  It’s interesting to note the emperor at the time was the infamous character Nero… and it’s entirely possible that Nero heard about Jesus because of Paul.

Paul opens his letter by giving thanks to God for the Philippians – for their faith, and for their faithfulness in friendship, and for supporting him while he’s in jail.  Paul says he’s been praying for them that their love will continue to grow, infused with knowledge and wisdom.

And then he begins to give the Philippians an update on what’s happening in his life, because Paul knows the Philippians are concerned. They know he’s in prison, and they know prison is not a healthy place to be (dirty and disease-ridden compared to our modern prisons, and even today they’re no walk in the park). So Paul fills them in on how he’s doing, and that’s where we pick up today.

Paul is sharing that in spite of the fact he’s in jail, and trying to recover from physical injuries he suffered from shipwreck and flogging, he says he is overjoyed that his sufferings are leading to glory for Jesus and to new life for the people around him. He says he doesn’t mind being in jail when it means others will come to know Jesus. And he’s excited to see his experiences making other believers bold in sharing God’s message.

Paul then declares, “for me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” – and this is such a striking statement I had to make it our focus for today.

“For me, living is Christ” – can we relate to that? When we think about our daily lives, is Jesus so close that every moment is touched by his truth and his love? The answer to that question of course is “yes” whether we’re aware of it or not – because as scripture says, “in him we live and move and have our being”. So Jesus is always close.

But I don’t know if it’s actually possible to be consciously aware of Jesus’ presence every minute of the waking day. When we get really involved in what we’re doing – like driving or cooking or fixing the vacuum cleaner, we tend to block out everything else… and it’s probably a good thing that we’re not distracted when we do these things. But if we stop and reflect for a moment, do we find ourselves thankful for the good meal we just had, or for the skill and knowledge it takes to drive a car or to repair a vacuum? Do we sense God’s goodness with us?  Do we see God working through us, even in small ways, to make our corner of the world just a little bit better? For a Christian, living really is Christ, and many times it is the little moments that make the difference.

But then Paul goes on to say “and dying is gain” or to translate it another way, “dying is profit”. This is tougher to take in, because it seems from our point of view like death means not gain but loss. Death takes away everything we own, everyone we know, our country, our town, our home, our education, our career, even our own bodies. So how can this be gain?

On the other hand, there are times when eternal life with Jesus looks pretty good… especially during painful times.  When we’ve lost someone close to us, or when we’re suffering through a serious illness; or when we’re facing major surgery; or when we get older and realize we’ve got more years behind us than in front of us, and more friends and family already in the Kingdom than here on earth. Those of us who are trusting Jesus, who believe Jesus meant what he said when he said “today you will be with me in Paradise” – we know the truth of Paul’s words. None of us looks forward to the actual process of dying, but when we look past death we see something glorious and far better than anything this world can offer.

That’s what Paul has in his sights.  Paul has been through beatings, shipwrecks, and imprisonment, and now he lives with chronic pain. He’s very aware of his mortality: he’s in prison accused of capital crimes, and he may not get out.

But Paul tells the Philippians he believes he’s going to be released, because God has more for him to do, and because the Philippians have been praying for him. Paul says If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.”  By the way, this is not Paul being egotistical – he’s not saying “I have to stay here on earth because you need me”.  It’s more like a loving parent who wants to stay alive as long as possible – even if it’s painful – to see their children grow and become the people they are becoming.

Besides that, the Philippians have been praying for Paul, and Paul says ‘I look forward to sharing in your boasting in Christ Jesus’ when Jesus answers their prayer. Paul is saying ‘When I come to visit, there will lots of answered prayers to talk about. You’ll tell me what Jesus has been doing in your life, and I’ll tell you what Jesus has been doing in my life, and we can brag on the Lord.’  It’s kind of like being in the Steelers locker room after a win.  You can hear the guys saying “Man, did you see that play? Did you see Antonio make that catch? Man he pulled that right out of the stratosphere!”

There are times when boasting is appropriate – and when Jesus has given us victory is one of those times! Granted, we need to boast appropriately. There’s a saying in the Old Testament, in the book of I Kings, that says, “One who puts on his armor should not boast like one who takes it off.”  But when we get the chance to sit down after the spiritual battles and take off the armor for a little while, and share stories of what God has done, it is entirely appropriate to boast. And Paul tells the Philippians he is looking forward to “sharing abundantly” in that boasting.

In the meantime, Paul says, ‘until I can join you, live your lives in a way that brings honor to the gospel of Christ and to the name of Christ. Be one in spirit; strive side by side with one mind for the faith; and don’t be afraid of those who oppose you.’

I wish our churches today – all the denominations – would take these words to heart!  Because all the churches are struggling against divisions right now.  The mission of the church – given by God, to all believers – is to share the gospel message Jesus gave us, and that message is: “the kingdom of heaven is near: change course and believe the good news. Jesus has died and has risen and has broken the chains of sin and death. Trust in him and receive salvation.”

That’s it!  The church’s job is to be God’s ambassadors to a dying world, to save lives. So how can we allow ourselves to be pulled off course by controversies?

Paul says, “stand firm in one spirit… with one mind.”  Does this mean we all have to agree on everything? No!  What it means is we know why we’re here and we agree on the gospel message and we work together in unity to share it.

Paul says: the enemies of the gospel, hearing God’s words through us, understand the words to be the evidence of their own end. And Paul is not being snarky here, he’s telling it like it is.  For those of us who have been Christians for a long time, we tend to forget what the gospel sounds like to people who oppose it or who don’t believe it. The words sound sweet to us, but they’re convicting to people who aren’t there yet.  And Paul says, “this is God’s doing” and he leaves it at that.

So coming back to Paul’s original thought – that for him, life is Christ and death is gain, or profit… I wanted to think about the profit angle for a moment.  People who have money learn to invest, and people who have lots of money learn to make the highest possible profit from their investments.

I knew a guy in college whose goal it was to a make a million dollars by the time he was 30 (he was about 18 when he said this). I don’t know if he ever succeeded but I imagine he might have. Because to reach a goal – any goal – takes focus and energy and an unwillingness to be distracted from that goal… and he had those qualities.  I also imagine if he made that first million he probably looked around and said, “OK…what next?” Because human beings have a need for life to be about something.  When we reach a goal, we need another one.

So what if we looked at the things we do every day, and the words we speak, as investments in God’s kingdom? What if, as Jesus suggested, we spent the majority of our time building up treasure in heaven, where rust and moth cannot consume, and thieves cannot break in and steal?  The question then becomes – what can we do that invests in God’s kingdom and what might we do sometimes that might take away from that investment?

The answers to those questions are not easy as one might think. I mean, there are some things we can be sure of: when we obey the Ten Commandments we are investing in God’s kingdom. When we tell others about Jesus we are investing in God’s kingdom.  When we do the things God has asked us to do, like showing mercy, or welcoming the stranger, or providing for the poor, or feeding the hungry, we are investing in God’s kingdom.  When we do what Paul is talking about in this letter: living a life worthy of Christ without fearm living in a way that brings honor to God, we are investing in God’s kingdom.

But there are times in scripture when God is doing a new thing and God’s will doesn’t seem to be quite that clear. And in the Christian life, past experience is not always the best guide for future action. God may want to do something totally unexpected. That’s why Paul prays in verse 9 that the love of the Philippians will “overflow with knowledge and full insight”.

Paul knows, as Jesus taught, that love is the fulfillment of God’s law.  But Paul also knows human love can go off course – unless it’s guided by knowledge and has wisdom to infuse it with beauty.

So if our words and actions are rooted in love, that is guided by knowledge or truth and infused with wisdom, we can be confident what we do and what we say is an investment in God’s kingdom.

Paul ends this passage by saying if we do these things there will be times when we suffer for it. So not only is investing in the Kingdom challenging, but when we finally start to get it right, people aren’t going to be thrilled about it!  But Paul sees suffering for Jesus’ sake as a privilege. And Jesus himself said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” (Matt 5:11-12)

This doesn’t mean Paul wants to be persecuted or tries to do things that will bring on suffering. There have been times in the church’s history when people have gone overboard with this idea and tried to get themselves persecuted, or even martyred, so they could get God’s blessing.  This is not sound thinking. But if we are doing God’s will, suffering will come, and Paul is honest about that. But Paul says when it comes, we share in the suffering together and we bear each other’s burdens, and God will bless us.

So the bottom line is, whether in suffering or in joy, whether in life or in death, Jesus Christ will be exalted. And no matter what happens, we will be with Jesus and Jesus will be with us. So to live is Christ; and to die is gain.  Let’s pray. 

 Lord, we are challenged by Paul’s words, and yet we are encouraged to hear about his joy and his boldness in the face of adversity.  Show us how we can invest in your Kingdom in our own time, by what we do and by what we say. Help us to live in a manner worthy of the gospel. Help us to be one in spirit and in mind as we share the faith and fulfill your commission. Help us to be faithful, as the Philippian church was faithful, bringing honor and glory to your name. AMEN.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 9/24/17

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[Scripture reading for the day is at the end of this post.] Welcome to the first installment in our our sermon series in Philippians!  This past summer we were in the Old Testament, and now we move into the New Testament, which is a bit closer to our own period in history, and a bit more familiar, thank goodness.

But we’re still looking at history. So for those of you like me who struggled through history class in school: for whatever it’s worth I think history is supposed to be about people, not memorizing places and events and dates. And people are always interesting, no matter what time period they lived in. So as we begin Philippians, I want to start by introducing the people.  If you have a Bible near you in the pews and would like to follow along feel free to do so.

So diving into Philippians. First, the book of Philippians is a letter. It was written by the apostle Paul, when he was in jail, probably around the year 55AD give or take a decade. Paul was writing to the congregation at Philippi. Back in those days when people wrote letters, they would start by identifying the writer first, and then say who the letter is to. The opening of this letter says “Paul and Timothy, servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, along with the bishops and deacons.” So Paul is writing the letter, with Timothy by his side in the jail. Timothy himself is not under arrest; he is there as Paul’s helper – to run errands, to get things, to send letters.

So the letter begins with Paul, who is a familiar person in the New Testament.  In fact probably about half the New Testament was written by Paul.  Paul’s birth-name was Saul, and he was born and raised in Tarsus in Syria, in a devout middle-class Jewish family, and he was trained in the family trade of tent-making.  But he also had a gift for theology, so at some point his family sent him to Jerusalem for religious training. Saul developed a reputation as an up-and-coming young man, and he became the student of the Pharisee Gamaliel who was one of the greatest teachers of the time. (BTW Gamaliel is mentioned in Acts 5 where his words save the life of Peter who had been arrested.)

So Saul was educated as a Pharisee, and he was trained not only in religion but also in in Greek philosophy, and eventually Saul became a Pharisee himself.  As a Pharisee, Saul believed in resurrection (which Sadducees did not. The Pharisees and Sadducees were always fighting over this issue.) And as a Pharisee Saul believed in keeping the law of Moses as perfectly as possible. So when Christianity came along, Saul persecuted the early church, not because the church believed in resurrection, but because Saul felt they didn’t observe Jewish law correctly. In fact they allowed Gentiles in the church.  And on top of that Saul wasn’t convinced that the Messiah was supposed to be crucified, so he wasn’t at all certain Jesus could be the Messiah…

…until the day he met Jesus on the road to Damascus, and you might say he saw the light. Meeting Jesus turned his whole world upside-down. Jesus called Saul to be the apostle to the Gentiles (of all things), and Saul’s name was changed to Paul, not because of the conversion, but because Saul is a Jewish name; and Paul is a Greek name – more user-friendly for someone ministering to Gentiles.

Timothy, who was with Paul, was one of Paul’s disciples… sort of a minister-in-training. Timothy’s dad was Greek but his mom and grandmother were devoutly Jewish, and all three of them became believers in Jesus through Paul’s preaching.  Paul invited Timothy to travel with him on his missionary journeys, and Timothy stayed by Paul’s side through thick and thin.  So our letter opens, Paul is writing from his prison cell, with Timothy by his side.

In the first line of the letter, Paul and Timothy describe themselves as “servants of Christ Jesus”.  The Greek word here is actually translates slaves. What they’re trying to tell us is that they are committed to living lives of unquestioning obedience to Jesus Christ. Paul and Timothy understood that to say “no, Lord” is a contradiction in terms.  For Paul and Timothy this is a matter of both duty and pride.  Just as – for example – our military personnel are expected to obey orders, but they also take pride in wearing the uniform, Paul and Timothy obey Jesus’ orders, and they take pride in serving the Son of the Living God.

Paul addresses his letter to the “saints in Philippi”.  Philippi was a city in north-eastern Greece, probably best known in the ancient world as the city where Marc Antony (you remember Marc Antony from the story of Antony & Cleopatra) tracked down the assassins of Julius Caesar and put them to death.  Because of this, Philippi was granted special status in the Roman Empire. Citizens of the city enjoyed tax breaks, and rights other conquered cities didn’t have, and Philippi attracted a lot of people from Rome. So the culture of the city was a mix of Greek and Roman and Jewish, and the religious scene was even more mixed. People in Philippi could worship Roman gods, Greek gods, Egyptian gods, the Jewish God, or any number of gods.

So early on in Paul’s ministry, Acts chapter 16 tells us Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia (the area surrounding Philippi) saying “come and help us”.  And Paul obeyed the vision, and as a result Philippi became the first place the gospel of Jesus Christ was ever preached in Europe.  Paul came to Philippi, and found some Jewish believers meeting on the banks of the river, and when he shared the gospel with them the first person to believe was a woman named Lydia. She was a dealer in purple cloth, and she was wealthy enough to have a house big enough to host the Philippian church.

So Paul addresses his letter to “all the saints… in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons”.  In Greek the words here are episkopoi and diaconoi (episkopoi is the word we get “Episcopal” from… ‘episcopal’ is just a fancy word meaning “we have bishops”) and diaconoi we get the word ‘deacon’ from. In those days bishops were more like the business managers of the church, sort of like the president of Council would be today. And the deacons were like our care teams: they helped to take care of the sick and the hungry and the poor. So the church hasn’t changed all that much since then: we may have different titles but we’re doing pretty much the same work.

The other thing we need to know about this letter is: why is Paul writing? What moves him to put pen to paper?  Because people back in those days didn’t just whip off letters at the drop of a hat. Back then you had to make your own paper, and make your own ink. So what moved Paul to go to the trouble?

There are a number of reasons, and we’ll be talking about those reasons over the next few weeks.  But our reading for today sets the character of the letter, and the overall feeling is one of great love and great joy, that Paul wanted to share.  The Philippians were Paul’s first Gentile converts to the faith: that alone made them special in his heart.  But beyond that they stayed faithful, through persecutions, through hard times, giving generously to people in need – and Paul was like a proud papa, he loved these people. And that love shines through the whole letter, even from the first line.

In ancient Greece a letter would usually open with a flowery greeting like “most gracious and humble salutations”. But Paul changes the traditional greeting into a blessing. He writes, “grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”  Paul does not consider his own greetings to be worthy of mentioning. Instead he gives them God’s greetings, with a prayer for grace and peace.

Paul goes on to say, “I thank God every time I remember you”. Can we relate to that? Do we have people in our lives, who whenever we think of them we say “God, thank you for this person”?  I believe many of us do. And some of us are that person for someone else. Having people around us who love Jesus and encourage us in the faith is one of the great blessings of being a member of the family of God.

Paul then goes on to say why he feels this way. He says: “because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now”.  This letter was probably written around ten years after the church at Philippi was started, and since that time Paul has suffered beatings, stonings, shipwreck, and imprisonments for the sake of the gospel. But when he looks at the faith of the Philippian church he says “it’s all been worth it”.

More than that, the Philippians have given Paul fellowship in the gospel – that is, they have been sharing the good news by his side from the very start. And so Paul is “confident that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion on the day of Jesus”. What’s more, the Philippians have not forgotten Paul while he’s in jail (for people in jail, it’s not unusual to feel ‘forgotten’ by the outside world), the Philippians have kept in touch, they’ve sent visitors, they’ve stood by him. So Paul is not only encouraged, but he longs to see them again – and he will, if and when he is set free.

Paul then tells them, “this is my prayer for you: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight.”  This prayer is the heart and soul of the Christian life.  As followers of Jesus we are called to love everyone we can, as best we can. We believe in a God whose very nature is love. The Bible says “God is love” – not in the sense that love is God (which is a common misunderstanding) but God is love in the sense that rain is wet.  If rain ever stopped being wet it wouldn’t be rain; if God ever stopped loving, God wouldn’t be God.

But the word love can mean so many things, so Paul qualifies his prayer by saying “love with all knowledge and insight.”  Human love can be (and often is) misused, deceived, or led astray. How many love songs have we heard that talk about broken hearts because ‘somebody done somebody wrong’?  In order to love we need to trust and sometimes people just aren’t trustworthy. So love needs discernment and wisdom. Love and truth are two sides of the same coin: you can’t have one without the other. So Paul prays for love infused with knowledge. The Greek word here is epignosis. We know the word a-gnostic – which means to not know – epi-gnostic means to know all. Kind of like epic knowledge.  So love infused with great knowledge.  And then Paul adds “and insight” – and the Greek word here is eisthesis, which is the word we get aesthetics from. In other words, the study of beauty.  Which makes sense, because truth alone tends to be a two-edged sword: it can get judgemental, it can be harsh.  But if we combine truth with Godly beauty we get a richness of wisdom that informs and inspires Godly love.

So Paul prays for the Philippians that their love will infused with knowledge and a principled insight into beauty, so that the Philippians may approve what is excellent, and in the day of Christ be found pure and blameless, having produced a harvest of righteousness in their lives. How beautiful is that? This is a prayer that we can pray for others, and I’d like to encourage us to do so this week.

So having prayed this prayer for the Philippians, Paul then gives the Philippians an update on how he himself is doing.  He writes, “beloved friends, I want you to know that what has happened to me” – that is, being thrown in jail – “has actually helped spread the gospel.  It’s become known through the whole imperial guard, and to everyone else, that my imprisonment is for Christ…”.

Aha! So we have an addition to the cast of characters: the ‘imperial guard’.  These were the elite Roman troops whose job it was to be Caesar’s household guards. Most likely Paul’s letter was written when Nero was emperor, which means it’s entirely possible that Emperor Nero heard the gospel on account of Paul being in jail. At the very least we know that many in Nero’s household heard the good news and became believers.

When this happened, Paul’s courage rubbed off on the Christians around him.  Paul says, “most of the brothers and sisters here, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with great boldness and without fear.” And they bring joy to Paul’s heart. Paul sums up by saying “between your prayers and the Spirit of Jesus I expect to be set free from prison… but whether or not I am, whether I live or die, Jesus is being exalted.”

When I read words like these it’s tempting to picture Paul like an evangelistic Arnold Schwarzenegger – as if Paul is this big tough swash-buckling dude who dares to brave prison and laughs in the face of death. Not so. People who knew Paul say that he was actually a small-ish guy, and had some physical difficulties the details of which we don’t know, but at any rate he was no action hero.  The beatings and shipwrecks and imprisonments were not easy for him to bear.

But in spite of all this Paul rejoices to be in jail in this time and in this place because his imprisonment means that people are hearing about Jesus and coming to faith and are finding new life in Christ.  And I wonder: Would you and I be able to say the same? Would we be willing to go to jail if our being there meant people’s lives would be saved?

It’s a tough question to answer. And we really don’t know for sure, unless we find ourselves in the situation.  But I will say this: Christians are called by Jesus to visit those in prison, and if you ever have the chance, I encourage you to do so.  I’ve only had a small taste of prison ministry myself but Paul is right: the opportunites are endless and the joy is amazing.  It’s like taking water to people in the desert.

But there’s a question beyond that, and the question is: What would we be willing to risk if it meant people’s lives being saved? What would we be willing to do so that someone else could know Jesus? Would we risk our jobs? Would we risk our possessions?  Would we risk inviting a foreigner or a refugee into our homes?

I’m not asking these questions to make us feel guilty, but rather to challenge us (myself included) to love Jesus more than anything else we have in life.  To be like the believers who looked at Paul in jail and were made bold, speaking out for the Lord with confidence, and love, and without fear.  We don’t need to have all the answers, we just need to say boldly:

“Jesus is King, and the kingdom is coming. Change course, and believe the good news”.

And yes I sometimes do feel shy about sharing the faith, even as a pastor, and sometimes I feel tongue-tied. But I’ve learned we don’t have to worry about results, because God is responsible for the results. It’s enough for us to show up and speak the truth. God takes care of the rest.

Paul loved Jesus so much, and loved people so much, he was willing to be in jail in order to share the gospel with others. And I know there are people here today who also love Jesus that much.  If there’s anyone here today who has not met Jesus yet, and who’s thinking what I’m saying is a bit radical – you’re right. It is radical. And I invite you to join us.

Let’s pray about this… Lord thank you for Paul and thank you for his loving care for the church at Philippi. Thank you that Paul loved your people enough to stay in jail and risk his life if it meant us finding you and getting to know you.  Thank you for Paul’s friends who shared your good news even in the household of Caesar. Thank you most of all Lord that you came to earth to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to God through your death on the cross and your resurrection from the grave.

This morning Lord we rededicate ourselves to you and to sharing your message. And if any are hearing this message for the first time – Lord, we want to know you and love you and be your people.  Forgive our sins and accept us into your kingdom. Help us to experience the joy Paul knew praying for others and sharing the good news. We place our lives in your hands. Use us where and when you will, so that in all things Christ will be exalted. AMEN.

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“Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons:  2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  3 I thank my God every time I remember you,  4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you,  5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.  6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.  7 It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.  8 For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.  9 And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight  10 to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless,  11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.  12 I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel,  13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ;  14 and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.  15 Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill.  16 These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel;  17 the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment.  18 What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice,  19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance.  20 It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death.” – Philippians 1:1-20

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 9/17/17

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