Monday, October 02, 2023

With Fear and Trembling

I am pleased to say that I have again managed a written version of the sermon for this week! The link below is to the recording of the sermon itself.

With Fear and Trembling

The Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity

Philippians 2:1-13

Our second reading this week is from St Paul's letter to the church at Philippi. It contains a very well-known passage that some people describe as a hymn because of the way it is structured. Nowadays, it is normally laid out in a poetic form in our Bibles. It describes how Jesus left his rightful place with God, died a humiliating death for us, and was exalted by God, so that everyone will one day acknowledge his authority to the glory of God.

It is very well-known, but we tend to miss a lot of its significance. St Paul, a Jew, is writing about someone who was his contemporary and who was executed as a rebel against Rome and yet St Paul can say that everyone, including those Roman soldiers who crucified Jesus and who hammered the nails into his hands, will one day kneel before him and confess Jesus and not Caesar as Lord.

It is indeed a remarkable passage. When St Paul describes how everyone will kneel before Jesus, St Paul has taken a passage in the Old Testament from the prophet Isaiah that refers to God himself and has applied it to Jesus (Isaiah 45:3). It is, however, remarkable not only because of its theological content, although that is remarkable enough. It is remarkable because St Paul has included this hymn not to tell his readers something they didn't already know about Jesus but to encourage them to be like Jesus and not only to worry about themselves and their own interests. They are, St Paul tells them, to have the same mind in them that was in Christ Jesus. Jesus was of exalted status and yet he humbled himself. St Paul wants his readers to do the same.

The church at Philippi was especially loved by St Paul, and the feeling was mutual. The Philippian believers had been on board with St Paul's mission from the very beginning, and St Paul acknowledges in the letter the practical support they had given him on more than one occasion. The reason he is writing to them now is in part to say thank you for a gift they have sent to him while he is in prison. While the Philippian believers don't seem to have had any serious theological issues that were troubling them, there is, nevertheless, some evidence of personality clashes within the congregation and that they were finding it difficult always to get on with one another. So, for example, in chapter 4, St Paul writes:

‘I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.’ (Philippians 4:2)

St Paul continues by describing these two women as ‘co-workers’ who have struggled beside him in the work of the Gospel and yet, despite their commitment to the Gospel, they seem to have fallen out with one another.

Many of the divisions and conflicts in congregations are of a personal nature. As a clergyman, I am aware that people are more likely to fall out with me because they don't like me than because they don't agree with me theologically.

St Paul, however, believes strongly in the need for unity and harmony in the Church, and he knows how destructive these personal disagreements and differences can be. St Paul urges the Philippian believers to put aside such feelings by regarding others as better than themselves and by having the same attitude as Jesus. Jesus put our interests before his own, and they, he tells them should follow him by putting each other’s interests before their own.

In this way, the passage follows on very well from what St Paul writes in his letter to the Roman believers on the subject of food, which we looked at last week and the week before. St Paul told the Roman believers that what mattered was not that they got to eat or not eat whatever they wanted, but the good of the church and of each other.

In our passage today, St Paul concludes the so-called hymn by describing how Jesus will be the One before whom all will one day appear. He then draws an important conclusion from this. In his letter to the Roman believers, he says something similar. St Paul writes to the Roman believers:

‘Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.”’ (Romans 14:10-11)

The conclusion St Paul drew from this in his letter to the Roman church was that each one of us will be held accountable to God (Romans 14:12). He draws the same conclusion in Philippians. The Roman and Philippian believers would have got the significance of the imagery St Paul uses more than most of us do today. The ‘judgement seat’ was an actual seat in the public square where the Roman governor or official sat to hear accusations brought against people. The Roman governor was Caesar’s representative and had the power of life and death. To be brought physically before the ‘judgment seat’ in public to give an account of oneself and one’s actions was a frightening thing to happen. How much more so when the person sitting on the judgement seat is Christ himself acting as God’s representative?

Three things, then, from this passage this morning.

1. Jesus not Caesar is Lord

Firstly, Jesus not Caesar is Lord. St Paul is clear that the governing authorities are appointed by God to keep law and order and that the believer is to be subject to them (Romans 13:1-7). We are to respect those in authority, obey them, and pay the taxes due to them.

This doesn't mean there are no limits to their authority or that there aren't times when we have no choice but to obey God rather than them (Acts 4:19; 5:29), but it does mean that submission to them is something God wants from us. Our duty is to pray for those in authority, not oppose them, much as we might prefer to do otherwise. However, St Paul is also very clear that the governing authorities having been appointed by God are themselves subject to him whether they realize it or not. Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord!

This means that we can have confidence that the course of history and all that take places within it are not under the control of earthly powers, much as they might think they are in charge, but under the control of God. Presidents Biden, Putin, and Xi; Prime Minister Sunak and Chief Executive John Lee are not Lord and in control, Jesus is. Jesus is because God has exalted him to that position. We honour earthly presidents and rulers as appointees, but we do not fear them. Jesus said:

‘I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body and after that can do nothing more. But I will show you whom to fear: fear the one who, after killing, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear that one! (Luke 12:4-5)

2. With Fear and Trembling

Secondly, following on from this, then, we are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling.

We do not fear earthly rulers and authorities, what we are to fear is having to stand before Christ and give an account of ourselves. I've never understood why people don't find this more scary. I think one of the reasons is that we have convinced ourselves, or allowed ourselves to be convinced, that there is nothing to fear: God is just too nice. And so, when we die, we believe, God will be so pleased to see us that he will just wave us into heaven, no questions asked. Believe this if you want to, and many do believe it, but there is nothing in the Bible that supports such a belief. So rather than the idea of appearing before God leading us to amend our behaviour, we think there is nothing to worry about. Convinced God will save us whatever we do, we just do what we want to do. If it is not going to matter what we do, why bother?

At one level it is a reasonable response. If there is not going to be any need for us to give an account of ourselves and there are no consequences for us regardless of how we live, then not only does it not matter how we live, we are naturally not going to be bothered about what may happen in the future. Whatever happens it will all be OK, or so we tell ourselves.

Imagine, however, if you were to find yourself standing in front of Jesus, and he was to question you about your life and behaviour. How would you feel then? Imagine being asked, for example, why we didn't go to church more regularly. How would that make us feel, I wonder? And that's a fairly innocuous example. What would it feel like when the questions got on to other aspects of our life? How would we feel when the questions became more personal and challenging?

There is a reason why we are to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling and that's because it is our salvation we are talking about, and that is a serious business that we all too frequently take far too lightly. But where then, you may ask, does this leave, the love of God. If we are all going to be required to give an account of ourselves to God, does this mean, we are to see God primarily as a judge whose main concern is that we should behave correctly and who will pass judgement on us if we don’t? All this talk of fear and trembling doesn’t sound very loving!

3. For God is at work in us both to will and to do

Frankly, if what St Paul were saying is that we are to work at our own salvation on our own, knowing that at the end of our life God will assess us to decide how well or otherwise we have done, we are all doomed. None of us left to ourselves would do very well at all. We would definitely need to be frightened, as we would certainly fail.

That, thankfully, is not what St Paul is saying. St Paul certainly is saying that we are to take our salvation seriously and work at it, but we are to do that because it is God himself who at work in us to motivate us both to want to do it and to do it. God knows that we can’t ‘just do it’. It is God who gives us the desire to work out our salvation and God who gives us the ability to do it. God is already at work in us if we have faith in Christ, now he wants us to work with him. The process of our salvation doesn’t end when we come to Christ; it begins. Or at least, it should.

There are some branches of the Church that talk about salvation as if it is only something that God works in us; we are simply passive recipients. Other branches talk about salvation as if it is entirely down to our own works and effort.

St Paul, however, sees salvation as a work that God does in us that God enables us to work with him to achieve. St Catherine of Siena said that God created us without our help, but he won't save us without our help.  We are not merely passive recipients, but active participants. Salvation is a work of God, but we have not only to receive it but to work at it.

If you take the example of physical health. We can be given the gift of a gym membership and a personal trainer to go with it, but we still have to turn up and do the work out. What is more our fitness will be assessed at the end of it!

We are not saved by our works, but we are not saved without them. So knowing that we all will appear before the judgment seat of God, that we will bend the knee before Jesus as his appointed representative, and that we will confess Jesus as Lord. Let us take seriously the need to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, knowing that it is God who is at work in us both to want to will and to do. And let us do that, as St Paul writes, so that we will give glory to God the Father.


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