Philippians 1:3-11 – Better Together

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joybecause of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God. (New International Version)

The need for a medical intervention means there is ill health in the body. And the need for a spiritual intervention means there is ill health in the Body. Physical health does not just happen. Care of the body is necessary through eating well, exercising, and coping adequately with stress. Bodily sickness prevents us from doing normal activities. Illness causes us to need care and to have an inability in caregiving to others.

Spiritual health in the Body of Christ occurs when we put every effort into keeping the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3). When spiritual health breaks down in the Body of Christ there is an inability for service and mission, a lack of unity, and an absence of joy. It was in such a situation that the Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians as a spiritual intervention meant to help restore their spiritual health.

In our New Testament lesson for today, the Apostle Paul begins his letter with emphasizing that the Body of Christ realizes unity, joy, and fellowship through a shared purpose of embracing the good news of Jesus Christ and proclaiming it to others. Paul emphasizes throughout his letter that the church is to be a common community, sharing life together, working on supporting one another and reaching out to others.

“We are only as strong as we are united, and as weak as we are divided.” 

J.K. Rowling

Every pronoun, “you,” used in these verses is not singular but plural. We are meant to establish our common life together around a shared mission of gospel proclamation: The kingdom of God is near. Through repentance and faith in the person and work of Jesus there is forgiveness of sins, new life, and participation in the life of God. The mission is not for larger church attendance, although that is nice and may happen; it isn’t to do more, or to get other people to stop swearing, avoid tattoos, or vote Republican.

The Apostle Paul knew without a focus on mission, on encouraging one another with the good news and sharing the gospel with others, the lack of purpose would create spiritual sickness. Apart from a deliberate focus on centering life and mission around the person and work of Christ, a group of people will nit-pick one another to death with their various opinions and wants. Wherever there is an absence of shared purpose, there you will find complaining, arguing, and a bunch of crotchety curmudgeons who nobody wants to be around.

Conversely, with a polestar on mission, the community of the redeemed work together in close fellowship with the result being joy. Happy people are a breath of fresh air to be around. A good healthy spirit is a delight to others. In fact, folks will find hope and healing through a common purpose of life together which imbibes liberally from the redemptive events of Jesus.

Good news is fun to share. It is joyful. The gospel of Jesus Christ is wonderful news, worthy of exuberant celebration. The Apostle Paul had fond memories of his partnership in the gospel with the Philippian believers. Although he had been jailed and beaten, Paul joyously sang in the prison – to the point where the jailer took notice and listened to the gospel of new life in Christ. The jailer and his entire family became followers of Jesus. (Acts 16:16-34)

“The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The Philippians were Paul’s spiritual children. They had sacrificed with Paul toward the shared vision of proclaiming good news. So, Paul wanted them to remember their own significant events of coming to faith, enjoying fellowship together, and working toward common objectives. In reminding the Philippian believers, Paul hoped to help get their heads screwed on straight again. He was confident this would happen, having an unshakable belief that God would continue the good work started within them.

This confidence was the basis of Paul’s prayers for the church. He beseeched God to unleash the Philippians’ collective love in a grand experiential knowledge of the divine so that they might discern well, making solid decisions which place the gospel as central to all of life.

There is an incredible depth to human need – a deep spiritual longing for what is good and beautiful. Relational unity brings out the beauty and majesty of humanity. Sometimes, when we are facing hard circumstances, we need to recall past days when this was true of us and remember why we were joyful.

In difficult times of injustice, we need a vision of humanity which locks arms in unity without vilifying one another. When we place priority on the good news, I believe we will again discover the joy of life, of knowing Christ. Perhaps, with a watching world observing basic human kindness and joyful relations, we will find ways of being better together and working toward the common good of all persons. And methinks, Jesus wants to help with this, if we will only let him.

May the hope of Advent and the anticipation of Christ’s coming, give us a way to understand our past and order our steps in the present so that the rule and reign of God is planted in our hearts and spread throughout the world.

O God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace: Give us grace to set aside our cranky unhappiness and divisive spirits. Take away all hatred and prejudice, and everything which hinders us from godly union and connection: that, as there is but one Body, and one Spirit, and one hope of our calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all; so we may be all of one heart, and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and love, and with one mind and one mouth to glorify you, through Jesus Christ our Lord, and in the strength of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Galatians 3:23-29 – A Ministry of Equals

Until the time when we were mature enough to respond freely in faith to the living God, we were carefully surrounded and protected by the Mosaic law. The law was like those Greek tutors, with which you are familiar, who escort children to school and protect them from danger or distraction, making sure the children will really get to the place they set out for.

But now you have arrived at your destination: By faith in Christ, you are in direct relationship with God. Your baptism in Christ was not just washing you up for a fresh start. It also involved dressing you in an adult faith wardrobe—Christ’s life, the fulfillment of God’s original promise.

In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ. Also, since you are Christ’s family, then you are Abraham’s famous “descendant,” heirs according to the covenant promises. (The Message)

Ever since the fall of humanity, people have had the predilection to organize themselves in groups that keep them distinct from other groups. Whether it is high school peer groups or office politics; whether class warfare or church cliques; there has always existed a tendency to think better about the groups we identify with, and to look down and believe the worst about those we don’t understand or just don’t plain like.

Jesus is the person who changes it all. Faith in Christ Jesus is what makes each of us equal with each other, whether Jew or a Greek, in bondage or in freedom, a man or a woman. The cross of Christ not only brought deliverance from sin, death, and hell; the work of Jesus Christ ushered-in a new egalitarian society.

I’m not sure the English translations of the Apostle Paul’s phrasing to the Galatian Church can truly capture his emphatic pathos about this issue. For Paul, Christ’s cross has done so much more than bring personal salvation; it has completely eradicated prejudice, discrimination, and division. 

Therefore, the Church is to be the one place on earth where divisions no longer exist. It is to be a foretaste of heaven. The Church is to be a new society, a community of the redeemed, based in equity, diversity, and inclusion, from every people group, race, ethnicity, and gender. Together as one, just as God is One, the Church lives the kingdom values of Christ’s words and ways in a fragmented world.

Since the ground is level at the cross, we are to live into Christian unity with a humble attitude and loving actions. To do otherwise is to be immature. We (hopefully) expect kids to be kids and not be like adults. They need teaching, training, and tutoring to learn. When kids grow up and get into adulthood, we then expect them to be like an adult. If they continue in childish behavior, they are immature.

Many adult Christians are still stuck in spiritual childhood. The evidence of this is seen in trying to stratify church society into insiders and outsiders, those who have always been in the church and newcomers who haven’t, the committed servants and the lax pew sitters.

Rather than all of that dividing of people, energy is to be placed with living into the egalitarian society inaugurated by Jesus (and Paul). Not taking women’s leadership seriously, avoiding relationships with the poor, and being xenophobic all come from a place of immaturity. It is childish behavior. Jesus expects better.

Embracing an egalitarian society neither means we are all the same nor should act alike. The diverse backgrounds and experiences of people help make a rich mosaic of support for one another in the Body of Christ.

Being egalitarian means all people are created in the image and likeness of God – no exceptions. All persons, therefore, deserve morally equal treatment, respect, and justice. A just and good Christian ethic ensures all believers are handled with love, given sound instruction, and are free to explore their gifts and abilities within the church.

Church, at its heart, is a community of equals. Thus, the church, as an egalitarian community, must actively reject racism, sexism, and all forms of discrimination while purposefully seeking ways to create and maintain a unified community without divisions.

Jesus reached out to the misfits and marginalized in society who were suffering from political, cultural, gender, and religious oppression and discrimination. The community of persons Christ formed included people of all ages and backgrounds. Children were welcome. Women sat down with men to learn and became active participants alongside one another.

Christ’s conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, the parable of the good Samaritan, and the healing of the daughter of the Canaanite woman, all illustrate that ministry is to reach beyond our own familiar group. In short, Jesus practiced a radical hospitality.

Christians would do well to emulate their Lord, as well as take their cues on ministry from Paul, who grounded both his theory and practice in a Trinitarian theology of equals.

Gracious God, you have abolished barriers through the redemption of Christ.  Prevent me from erecting walls that would divide and use me to be a bridge so that others may experience equality in Jesus.  Amen.

Ephesians 4:17-24 – Stop Being Stupid

As a follower of the Lord, I order you to stop living like stupid, godless people. Their minds are in the dark, and they are stubborn and ignorant and have missed out on the life that comes from God. They no longer have any feelings about what is right, and they are so greedy that they do all kinds of indecent things.

But that isn’t what you were taught about Jesus Christ. He is the truth, and you heard about him and learned about him. You were told that your foolish desires will destroy you and that you must give up your old way of life with all its bad habits. Let the Spirit change your way of thinking and make you into a new person. You were created to be like God, and so you must please him and be truly holy. (Contemporary English Version)

“Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Why in the world are some people stupid and godless?

I’m sure if you asked that question to a dozen people you might get a dozen different responses.

According to the Apostle Paul, it comes from a disconnection from truth. And biblically, since the very character of G-d is truth, then ignorance and a closed heart also result from estrangement from G-d.

The Christian tradition teaches that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. Life together is to be shaped around the person and work of Christ. Since Christians share a common confession of Jesus, we are to share a common life together. That life is to revolve around the truth of Jesus. That means we will put off non-Christian ways of relating to each other and put on a Christian way of relating to each other. 

We will, then, speak truthfully and live honestly, because we belong to each other – we are responsible for one another. Just as Jesus so closely identified with us in his life, death, and resurrection, so we are to so closely identify with each other that we take responsibility for each other. My problems are your problems – your issues are my issues. This is a stance of connection, not division.

When believers are firmly moored to Christ and to Christian community, then, with the enablement of the Holy Spirit, they are able to forsake the old life with its unhealthy routines of living and embrace a new life with good healthy habits of daily life.

Some people continually struggle to overcome bad habits. In part, it’s because they are living a half-truth life. They might be connected to Jesus as Truth yet remain stubborn about staying disconnected from Christ’s Church.

One never realizes sustainable holiness over time apart from Christian community. In other words, real lasting change comes from both the truth of Christ and the truth of Christ’s Church.

“No one can have God as his father who does not have the Church as his mother.”

St. Cyprian (c.210-258 C.E.) and St. Augustine (354-430 C.E)

The magisterial Reformer, John Calvin, upheld the ancient teaching of the Church:

“The Church is our mother, inasmuch as God has committed to her the kind office of bringing us up in the faith. This method of education is not to be despised…. She has the milk and the food by which she continually nourishes her offspring. This is why the Church is called the mother of believers. And certainly, the one who refuses to be a child of the Church desires in vain to have God as Father.”

John Calvin

This is a consistent understanding throughout Christian history. That’s because the ancient church fathers (and mothers!) knew people are hard-wired for community and, what is more, truth is located not only in the Head of Christ but also in the Body of Christ. Decapitating head from body is to sever the truth in half. They have always been meant to go together as one.

To know the truth intellectually and cerebrally is only half of personal transformation. There also must be a bodily living of the truth – and to do that takes the Body of Christ. Life in Christ is life together as Christians.

Just as it was not our choice to be born into our biological family, so we are born again into a spiritual family, the Church. And just as that crazy uncle, obnoxious cousin, bossy big sister, as well as the entire family system can be difficult in our biological family, so it is the same in our spiritual family. We can choose to be estranged from them, but this in no way diminishes the truth that we need family and community.

Yes, both biological family and spiritual family can be (and are) toxic for many people. I am not suggesting we passively submit to abuse and allow ourselves to remain in abusive relationships. What I am saying is that doing away with community altogether is an awfully bad idea.

As much as I, in the past, have wished to run away and live alone in the woods with only bears and raccoons as my friends, I didn’t do it, mainly because I knew better. I knew I needed a supportive community of redeemed people if I was every going to truly honor G-d and experience becoming holy as G-d is holy.

If we want to participate in the life of G-d, it comes with community.

It is, therefore, necessary to hold one another accountable, as well as help each other to be truly holy. We need to embrace the teachings of the New Testament toward one another: Love one another (John 13:34); Be devoted to one another (Romans 12:10); Encourage one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11); Exhort one another (Hebrews 3:13); Confess your sins to one another (James 5:16); along with dozens of other “one another” references.

A lack of self-awareness, empathy, and understanding comes from being disconnected from community. Yet, when we wise up to embrace the truth of Christ and Christ’s Church, we aren’t fooled by evil, and we discover the strength of life together in the Spirit.

Grant, Almighty God, that all who confess your Name may be united in your truth, live together in your love, and reveal your glory in the world. Guide the people of all nations in the ways of justice and peace; that we may honor one another and serve the common good. And guide us to live together as countercultural models of goodness and reconciliation, in our neighborhoods and beyond, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

1 Corinthians 12:12-27 – One People for the Common Good of All

The body of Christ has many different parts, just as any other body does. Some of us are Jews, and others are Gentiles. Some of us are slaves, and others are free. But God’s Spirit baptized each of us and made us part of the body of Christ. Now we each drink from that same Spirit.

Our bodies don’t have just one part. They have many parts. Suppose a foot says, “I’m not a hand, and so I’m not part of the body.” Wouldn’t the foot still belong to the body? Or suppose an ear says, “I’m not an eye, and so I’m not part of the body.” Wouldn’t the ear still belong to the body? If our bodies were only an eye, we couldn’t hear a thing. And if they were only an ear, we couldn’t smell a thing. But God has put all parts of our body together in the way that he decided is best.

A body isn’t really a body unless there is more than one part. It takes many parts to make a single body. That’s why the eyes cannot say they don’t need the hands. That’s also why the head cannot say it doesn’t need the feet. In fact, we cannot get along without the parts of the body that seem to be the weakest. We take special care to dress up some parts of our bodies. We are modest about our personal parts, but we don’t have to be modest about other parts.

God put our bodies together in such a way that even the parts that seem the least important are valuable. He did this to make all parts of the body work together smoothly, with each part caring about the others. If one part of our body hurts, we hurt all over. If one part of our body is honored, the whole body will be happy. Together you are the body of Christ. Each one of you is part of his body. (Contemporary English Version)

“If instead of a gem, or even a flower, we should cast the gift of a loving thought into the heart of a friend, that would be giving as the angels give.”

George MacDonald (1824-1905)

It’s easy to take things for granted.

For instance, we don’t typically think too much about our toes… until we stub them, drop something on them, break them, or need a podiatrist to operate on them. Then, we not only know they’re still there, but our entire body (along with the mind and emotions!) feels the need to give a lot of attention to the lowest end of our body that enables us to stand and walk without thinking much about it.

The body is an apt metaphor for how to think about humanity and its various systems and institutions. We might see the face of any church or organization, but there are scads of people behind the scenes doing all kinds of good work. For example, the golfing profession understands the importance of caddies; lawyers know the need of paralegal professionals; healthcare facilities and organizations rely not only on nurses and social workers, but also on cooks and housekeepers; schools need the coordination of teachers, parents, students, volunteers, and the entire community to effectively realize the education of children.

Also, as you well know, it’s easy to take for granted services we receive… until we don’t receive them, or in a way to our liking. Then, we pay attention. We want action and resolution. We want our food now and to our exact specifications. Sometimes we might even forget that we are dealing with people, not cogs in a machine or parts in a system. Millions of people labor every single day, sometimes even seven days a week, just to make ends meet and provide for their families. When we neglect to see or understand this, we have done our fellow human beings a gross disservice.

It’s also awfully easy to forget how radical the Apostle Paul’s words were for first-century folks, especially in religious circles. Throughout the Old Testament, the Hebrew community was God’s people. If you wanted to worship the one true God, you came to Jerusalem and learned from Jews.

But Pentecost and the giving of the Holy Spirit changed things in such a profound and organic way that the world would never be the same again.

Paul preached with fervor and flavor that there would not be a separate Jewish church and Gentile church. They have become one Body of Christ through the redemptive events of Jesus. Both Jews and Gentiles have the same Spirit – not different Spirits for each group. Jesus did not die so that people could be fragmented from each other; Christ was crucified to end, once and for all, the segregation, discrimination, and ostentation of one group of people above another. 

The cross was the ultimate radical act of justice against the powers of this dark world that seek to rank people according to their relative importance and worth.

The power of resurrection is the energy of God raising Christ from death to triumph over the realm and system of evil throughout the earth. All kinds of people everywhere are to rise with Christ in a great demonstration of God’s power to subvert the status quo of discriminatory racism, extreme individualism, gender inequality, social and economic classism, and any kind of “ism” which places one group of people in subjection to another in misguided notions of superiority.

The church is to be a community of redeemed people reflecting the diversity of God’s big world.

No two groups of people could have been more different than Middle-Eastern Jews and Greek Gentiles. Yet, Paul adamantly insisted that they together, not separate, make up the one Body of Christ.

It isn’t easy listening to another group of people who think and act differently than you and me. But listen we must. And respond we must. It is our biblical responsibility as believers in the way of Christ. Believers are only the Body of Christ when we are united and together as one people of God.

There is no ability to look down your nose on another person if you are already kneeling on the ground in humble prayer at the foot of the cross. There is only the chance to look up. There is even the opportunity to allow someone less privileged and fortunate to assist you.

Yes, we all need one another – even if it doesn’t seem that way at first.

It isn’t our job to colonize other people’s culture and society to make it more like our own. It is our duty to share good news, make room at the Table, extend love in the name of Jesus, and work together as the one people of God, formed by the Spirit.

Almighty God of all creation, I understand we don’t struggle merely against flesh and blood but against powers and principalities – those institutions and systems that keep separatisms alive by perpetuating the lie that some members of the family are inferior and others superior.  Create in us a new mind and heart that will enable us to see brothers and sisters in the faces of those divided by human constructed categories of power disparities. 

Give us the grace and strength to rid ourselves of stereotypes that oppress some of us while providing entitlements to others. Help us to create a Church and nation that embraces the hopes and fears of oppressed people everywhere, as well as those around the world. Heal your family, God, and make us one with you, in union with our Lord Jesus, and empowered by your Holy Spirit. Amen.

*Above photo credit: music4life on Pixabay