Sunday, September 27, 2020

The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity

Here is the transcript of the second sermon in my series of sermon on St Paul's letter to the Church at Philippi.

The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Philippians 2:1-13

In the sermon last week, we saw that St Paul’s dominant emotion in thinking about and praying for the Philippian believers was ‘joy’. He uses the word joy in its various forms sixteen times in the letter. In our reading this week, however, he asks the Philippian believers to ‘complete his joy’. His joy over them is real, but it is not unalloyed. 

While the Philippian Church does not seem to have had the problems that some of his other Churches had, there do, nevertheless, seem to be one or two clouds hanging over it. We get some idea of the nature of these clouds from what St Paul writes in chapter four. He writes:

‘I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel …’ (Philippian 4:2-3)

The phrase St Paul uses here, ‘be of the same mind’, emphasizes something he says throughout the letter. In chapter one, for example, he tells the Philippian believers to strive ‘side by side with one mind for the faith of the Gospel’ (Philippians 1:27). He begins chapter two by asking them to complete his joy by being of ‘the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind’ (Philippians 2:2).

What all this suggests is that there was some conflict in the Church at Philippi over personalities. The disagreements between Euodia and Syntyche, and between others in the Church, are not serious enough for St Paul to have to write at length about them in the way he writes, for example, about disagreements in the letter to the Church at Rome. The quarrelling he writes about in the letter to the Church at Rome is ‘quarrelling over opinions’ (Romans 14:1). Here in the Church at Philippi, the quarrelling seems to be more about ‘quarrelling over personalities’.

Speaking as a pastor, I would say that most of the conflict in churches is caused by conflicts that are more to do with personalities than opinions. The conflicts that occur are often presented as arguments over matters of principle, but, at their heart, there is often something else far more fundamental that has to do more with the inability of people simply to get on with one another.

In Church, we talk a lot about doctrinal and ethical issues, far less about relational ones. Our Lord, on his last night with his disciples before his death, gave them an example and teaching about what he wanted their relationship with each other to be like. In order to do this, as they arrived for their last meal together, he famously took on the role of a slave and washed their feet. He then said to them:

‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord - and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.’ (John 12:13-15)

In a Church, as in any human group, there are people who like to be looked up to and admired. They want to be leaders. There is absolutely nothing wrong with having leaders; the Church needs them. The issue is what type of leadership the Church should have. It is interesting that it is only in the letter to the Philippians that St Paul refers to leaders in a formal sense. He addresses the letter not only to the ‘saints’ in general, but also to the ‘overseers and deacons’ (Philippians 1:1). There seems to be some competition between the various leading personalities in the Church at Philippi. St Paul is anxious that it should end.

In this, he is echoing the words of Jesus. On one occasion, our Lord tells his disciples when they argue over who should have the best positions in the Kingdom:

‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’ (Matthew 20:25-28)

These passages and others like them are often read at ordination services of the clergy. Far easier to read them then and get them out of the way! Despite our Lord being so clear about the nature of leadership in the Church, we still persist with forms of leadership and church organization that are modelled on those in the world around us. We cannot be surprised then when they result in the same problems that we see in the world around us and when church leaders behave as the Gentiles do.

Leaders are, however, expected to set an example in what it means to be a leader in the body of Christ. St Paul, in chapter two, points to the example set by two leaders known to the Church at Philippi that showed what true spiritual leadership should be like. First, in chapter 2:19-24, St Paul describes how he has no-one working with him like Timothy. The others, he writes, all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. Then, secondly, St Paul describes how Epaphroditus, himself a member of the Philippian Church, came close to dying in the work of Christ. Epaphroditus was, St Paul tells them, prepared to ‘risk his life’.

But it is not just leaders that are expected to live sacrificially. Leaders are expected to set an example in the way St Timothy and St Epaphroditus did, but we, as members of the Church, are expected to copy it. And this is what St Paul urges the Philippian believers to do in our reading this week. Using words that St Paul will take up in the letter to the Roman believers, he tells them to ‘do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit’, instead, ‘in humility’, they are to ‘regard others as better’ than themselves (Philippians 2:3). They are to think of others and not just themselves.

In this letter to the Philippian believers, St Paul uses the Greek word for ‘mind’ in its various forms ten times in four chapters. In the letter to the Romans, he uses it thirteen times in sixteen chapters. In Romans, we saw how, after explaining various aspects of his understanding of the Gospel, he urges the Roman believers not to be ‘conformed to this world’, but to be ‘transformed’ by the renewing of their minds (Romans 12:2).

Having a renewed mind means thinking in a new way. One of those new ways St Paul describes in both letters. It is that believers are not to think of themselves ‘more highly than they ought to think’ (Romans 12:3). In chapter 8 of the letter to the Roman believers, St Paul writes that the ‘mindset of the flesh is death’, but that the ‘mindset of the Spirit is life and peace’ (Romans 8:6).

How we think as believers matters. This is a major theme in the letter to the Philippians, and we will see more of what St Paul has to say about it as we progress through the letter.

You may have heard the phrase, ‘What would Jesus do?’. Some people wear this phrase, or the letters ‘WWJD’, on bracelets and necklaces. It is seen as a way of approaching difficult decisions and problems. Here, however, St Paul urges the Philippian believers to consider how Jesus would think. This is not simply about what Jesus would think about individual issues, which is also important, but about what Jesus’ outlook and attitude would be. We are to ask ourselves, ‘HWJT’, how would Jesus think? It is to do with our mindset and our worldview in general.

This is so important today when the Church and its members are increasingly adopting a worldview and mindset which owes more to the world around it than it does to Jesus and the Spirit.

I am stressing this particularly because there is the temptation with this week’s reading to focus on the amazing words St Paul writes in our reading about our Lord and who he is. And they do tell us a lot about who he is, but these words about our Lord follow St Paul’s command to the Philippians to make his joy complete by being of the same mind. The mind they are to have is the mind of Christ. These words about our Lord focus not so much on who he was, they rather take that for granted, but on what he did and what happened as a consequence. We are to think like Jesus and act accordingly.

Our Lord was in the ‘form of God’. His position could not have been more exalted, but he ‘emptied himself’ and took the ‘form of a slave’. He became ‘obedient unto death, even death on the Cross’, and, for people at the time, there was no more shameful death than crucifixion.

That his followers should themselves be prepared to empty themselves and become servants was a constant theme in the teaching of our Lord. He said explicitly:

‘The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.’ (Matthew 23:11-12)

Jesus taught that those who humbled themselves would be exalted as he himself was to be and as St Paul goes on to describe. St Paul has written about his own suffering, suffering which the Philippian believers themselves experience and share in. This suffering is not to be avoided, but to be embraced. St Paul tells them that God has ‘graciously granted them the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well’ (Philippians 1:29).

The reason that we can embrace suffering and service is because our Lord embraced it. He promises, that if we follow his example, then we too, like him, will be exalted and experience the glory of God.

Until that Day, Jesus tells us that in following him we are to ‘deny ourselves and take up our Cross’ (Matthew 16:24). Our experience of suffering and opposition is a part of what is involved in taking up our Cross and following Jesus. This is what it means to ‘work out our salvation with fear and trembling’, as St Paul commands later in chapter two (Philippians 2:12). As we do so, it is God who is at work in us to enable us both to ‘will and to work’ the way he wants us to (Philippians 2:13).

As followers of Christ, we are to live lives that are radically different to that of the society in which we live. We are not only to be different, we are to stand out as different. St Paul tells the Philippian believers that they are to do this:

‘ … so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world.’ (Philippians 2:15)

Light both attracts and repels. Our hope is that our lives will so reflect the character of Christ that people will be drawn to them and come to know Christ for themselves.

Some will, but others will be repelled and try to black out the light as they did with Christ and as they are trying to do with St Paul at the time he is writing this letter. This St Paul describes is ‘evidence of their destruction’, but of the believers’ ‘salvation’ (Philippians 1:28). All this will come to completion on the ‘day of Christ’ when, if we are faithful, then like St Paul, we will be able to boast that we did not ‘run or labour in vain’ (Philippians 2:16).

One of my biggest frustrations is how we as a Church are often little more than a religious charity. Even the causes we espouse and those we promote are those which are the political and social fashions of our day. To read the church press is just to read the secular press with some religious words thrown in. We are not radically different; we are boringly the same.

This wouldn’t be so bad if, alongside our desire to appear relevant, we were also prepared to challenge society’s values when they contradicted those of the Gospel. We are, however, frightened that if we were to speak out, then not only would we not be listened to, we might find that our seat at the table of power is taken away. Or, worse still, that those with power might turn on us and oppose us. Our obedience to the Gospel might even lead to death!

St Paul describes the world much in the same way that our Lord does: as ‘crooked and perverse’; its opposition to the Gospel as a sign of its destruction. What are we doing to counter the crooked ways of the society we live in? In what ways are we resisting the perversity of the ideologies of our age that are so ruthlessly promoted in our culture? How are we, as St Paul puts it, ‘striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the Gospel’ (Philippians 1:27)?

The message of St Paul in our reading this morning is one that people today particularly need to hear. The Gospel challenges our obsession with ourselves and with our desire to promote ourselves. Jesus showed that the path to glory lies not in self-fulfilment, but in obedience, suffering, and sacrifice.

We like to think that we are accountable to no-one but ourselves: ‘I am enough’. But here’s the thing: ‘You’re not’. I would really recommend a new book by Allie Beth Stuckey, ‘You’re not enough (and that’s okay). Escaping the toxic culture of self-love’.

Because that’s what the culture we are living in is: a toxic culture that promotes the lie that we are enough. The lie that we don’t need anyone, least of all God, only for us to discover that we are not enough. Tragically, when we discover our inadequacy, and we will, all too often we find ourselves alone with no-one there to help us pick up the pieces of our own self-destructive behavior.

The good news of the Gospel is that when we run out of faith in ourselves, Christ is there inviting us to put our faith in him instead. It is only when we are free from ourselves that we become free to be ourselves. To be, that is, the person we can become in Christ. For it is when we humble ourselves that we find ourselves exalted and when we become obedient unto death that we find the life that only God in Christ can give.


No comments: