Philippians 2:12-18 – Think of the Needs of the Group

Photo by Ingo Joseph on Pexels.com

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act to fulfill his good purpose.

Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life. And then I will be able to boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor in vain.But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. So, you too should be glad and rejoice with me. (NIV)

Here is what I would like you to do. Go back and read these verses for today….

Now, I want you to read them again, but with this understanding: Every pronoun in the verses is plural, not singular….

Did that last reading make a difference for you? You see, we all tend to read with certain lenses. Reading with American glasses usually means we read such biblical passages, like our New Testament lesson today, with individualist lenses. But this would be a misreading of the text.

These words from Holy Scripture are directed at the community. They are meant to be read with a collective understanding. So, when the Apostle Paul told the Philippian church to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” he wasn’t aiming it toward individual persons. He meant everyone together was to help one another live out their common salvation. In other words, deliverance is more than an individual affair – it is also a communal concern.

This also shapes how we understand the admonition to do everything without being a grump and a complainer. The community works together to encourage each other and weeds out all arguing and bickering. Practically speaking, no one individual is going to get over being a crotchety curmudgeon without the help of the group. Since people are hard-wired by God for community, always trying to be radically independent will almost always end in being a faultfinder and bellyacher.

Group work is human work, and vice versa.

Interdependence with others is the proper road to travel, without veering into either ditch of independence or dependence. Community dynamics are necessary to life. Mutual giving and receiving are a must. Both sharing and accepting need to occur for any sort of relational health.

The reason the Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Philippian Church was because they weren’t getting along, weren’t playing well with others. Christianity is a team sport. Everyone must work together, even when it comes to salvation. Deliverance from sin, death, and hell – salvation from guilt, shame, disconnection, and relational separation from both God and others – is a matter for the collective community. That’s why no one is baptized alone or observes the Lord’s Table all by themselves.

Today’s New Testament lesson is not a text dealing with individual salvation but is an ethical text dealing with the outworking of salvation in the believing community for the sake of the world. Paul’s present concern was with a group of believers being God’s people. Individuals were to stop their selfish in-fighting and get along with each other.

To do that, the entire group was to set aside selfish ambition and put the concerns of others ahead of their own personal agendas. Everyone is to think of the needs of the group. When we do that, we then discern that murmuring and grumbling are simply not helpful. And, what’s more, such an attitude can damage, even destroy a group through bitterness resulting in gangrene of the church body.

Instead, we are to be blameless and pure in all our dealings with one another. Here are a few basic ways this communal concern works itself out practically:

  • No one cries alone.
  • No one suffers in silence.
  • No one falls through the cracks.
  • There is always someone present to share joy with.
  • There is always someone around to hear your story.
  • There is always somebody there to pick you up.

When such a dynamic dominates any group, then it will be hard to find any grumblers, any sort of in-fighting, and little discontent. Rather, there is a great deal of carrying one another’s burdens, a lack of judgment toward others, and a settled hope that, even though the world might be going to hell in a handbasket, we will be okay because we have each other.

So then, the church is to be an inclusive community, inviting persons into a hospitable space of care and support. Church as factory cannot do this. Church made up of special interest groups is not able to do this. Church as simply a Sunday affair will never get it done.

However, Church poured out as an offering to the world will get it right. Church as oriented toward faithful service for the common good of all has it. Church as the community of the redeemed, living out their faith together as one people of God cannot be stopped or restrained from blessing the entire planet.

Do you want to go it alone? That is what Satan did, and it hasn’t worked out so well for us.

Will you think of the needs of the group? That is what Jesus did, and it resulted in our salvation.

We are to work out that salvation, together, so that our collective faith is strengthened, and the world is delivered from its great loneliness. So, put your best foot forward and think of the needs of the group.

Holy God, we your people come with deep gratitude for our common call as believers for the life of your big world. Draw us into communion with you and all creation. Living with intentional awareness and openness to change, we seek to expand the expression of our collective obedience to the mission of Jesus to love God and neighbor, inviting others to walk with us in sharing our gifts. Free our hearts to recognize and attend to Christ in hidden and unexpected places. We renounce and reject societal barriers created by the misuse of power and authority by selfish individuals. Transform us to listen deeply to one another and to the brokenness of the world. Bless our efforts to be the change we want to see in the world, through the enablement of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

Matthew 12:46-50 – Family

En la Cena ecológica del Reino (At the Ecological Kingdom Dinner) by Spanish artist Cerezo Barredo

While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”

He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (NIV)

Jesus obviously did not get the memo that blood is thicker than water. When his own blood family were waiting outside for him, Jesus used the occasion to speak of what makes up a true follower of God. Christ boldly asserted that his true family is made up of people who do God’s will.  By saying this, Jesus brought the point home that the kingdom of God turns on obedience.

Rather than solely confessing belief, or appealing to a family heritage of faith, Jesus said that a genuine believer in God is one who listens to God’s words and then promptly obeys them. Therefore, a Christian is defined by allegiance to Jesus, and not by having a certain bloodline. 

Identity determines activity. For example, if I identify myself primarily as a worker at my job, my activity will show it – I will spend long hours at my labor, and will do whatever it takes to please my boss and gain promotions. If I identify myself primarily as an athlete, I will spend long hours honing my skills, and do whatever it takes to please the coach and to win. If my identity is mostly wrapped around being a husband and father, I will focus most of my attention on my family and seek to please my spouse and children in all things. 

If my identity is first and foremost as a Christian, I will always seek to please Jesus. I will then view my job as an opportunity to express the ethics of God’s kingdom, as a calling from God, and as a means for God to transform me for his glory. I will view athletics as means to glorify God, and not as an end in and of itself but as a special gift for God to teach me about the importance of community and working together. 

If my identity is clearly in Christ, I will view my kids as belonging to God and I will steward the trust of children given me by doing whatever it takes to teach and train them in the way of Jesus. I will thank God for my family and not confuse them with being God by idolizing them.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus was inside a house, with his family on the outside. So, why were the family members of Jesus not inside the house sitting at his feet, taking the posture of a disciple? The disciple Matthew wanted to communicate more than physical distance between Jesus and his physical family – being “outside” was meant to convey the posture of Christ’s family as spiritually distant, skeptical of him, and indecisive about who he was and what he was up to. In fact, the disciple Mark made this spiritual and emotional distance clear:

Jesus entered a house. A crowd gathered again so that it was impossible for him and his followers even to eat. When his family heard what was happening, they came to take control of him. They were saying, “He’s out of his mind!” (Mark 3:20-21, CEB)

Christ’s earthly family were not looking for Jesus to give them warm-fuzzies and have a family group hug. They were there to tell him: “Cut it out, Jesus, because you’re acting like a nut-cake and embarrassing us all!” The kid brothers of Jesus (James and Jude) would go on to become powerful Christian preachers and each pen a New Testament letter, but that does not happen till after Jesus’ resurrection.

Ethiopian Orthodox Church depiction of Christ and his disciples

Jesus was saying that identifying only with a biological family leads to only pleasing that family. However, identifying with Jesus leads to a radical form of following God that seeks to please him instead of submitting to family practices, mores, and beliefs which are inconsistent with the kingdom of God. 

For the follower of Christ, the church is the family of God, and we are to act consistent with being in such a family.  We are to go hard after God’s will, serve one another, and adopt outsiders into our family.  The church is a family, not a restaurant.  When we go to a restaurant, we either like the food and the service, or not. If the experience was unpleasant, we might complain to the waitress and may or may not come back.  Try doing that with your mother and see where it gets you!  As a biological family, we are committed to each other. There is no complaining about mom because of dad’s wrath. Instead, we are expected to clear our plates and put them in the dishwasher, to sweep the floor and clean the table, and to work together for the benefit of the entire family.  In the same way, following Jesus means being committed to his family, the church.

Priority is to be given in doing God’s will, regardless of blood, because obedience to Christ identifies us as being in the family of God.  Our actions and the way we live points to what we honestly believe and where our commitments truly lie. 

The first step of God’s desire for us is quality focused time in sitting at Christ’s feet and listening to him because this is at the heart of all Christian discipleship. We cannot do God’s will until we have clearly heard it; and we cannot hear God’s will unless we take the time to be at the feet of Jesus. 

Both listening and doing are necessary.  Listening without engaging the world is a failure of mission; and doing without first listening leads to misguided acts and eventual burn-out. Allow Jesus to call the shots and let him instruct us so that we can act wisely and obediently. 

Jesus did not devalue blood relatives as irrelevant. Rather, Christ emphasized that our primary allegiance is to him, and not to our biological family.  The kingdom of God seeks to restore and redeem all things, including family. Both church and family are important. The relationships within each are to be nurtured.

The family of Jesus, the church, is important because Christ suffered and died for her. So, we are to be committed to the church, love the church, and serve the church because we are family. If we have a good grasp of this, we will make decisions based in what we believe God’s will is, instead of whether a relative will get upset, or not. 

Our biological families are important.  Jesus never pitted one against the other, because he wants to see families redeemed and work together as the family of God. Every Christian family can do this:

  • Appoint a time to read Scripture together and listen to Jesus and discuss it.
  • Show hospitality so that we can eat and drink our way into the kingdom of God. 

We need to persistently pray for spiritually lost family members, and those whom we are estranged from. Most families have at least a few toxic persons in their orbit. Here is how we might pray for them:

  • That God will arrange divine appointments between them and other believers who love Jesus.
  • That God will draw them to the mercy of Christ.
  • That God will hinder the devil’s schemes against them.
  • That they will understand and respond to the good news of God’s grace.

Soli Deo Gloria

3 John 9-12 – On Hospitality and Against Being Inhospitable

Trinity by Russian artist Alek Rapoport (1933-1997)

I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. So, when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.

Dear friends, do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who does what is good is from God. Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God. Demetrius is well spoken of by everyone—and even by the truth itself. We also speak well of him, and you know that our testimony is true. (NIV)

I believe in an egalitarian world. That is, humanity is meant to live, ideally, in equity with one another. Humility, meekness, and gentleness are to be the inner dispositions of a person’s life. These virtues work themselves out in being concerned for the common good of all, laboring toward just and righteous ways of living for everyone and sharing our lives as well as our resources with each other. In short, viewing one another as equals inevitably leads to gracious hospitality.

However, in a world of power disparities and privileged inequities are attitudes of seeking attention, a perceived need to always win and be first, and tight-fisted control of authority and money. The common good of all persons is scaled back to be the concern for the common good of some. There is a failure to regard the weak, poor, and vulnerable as legitimate members of the community.

The Apostle John wrote his short succinct letter in a concern that the church may be following a leader who was taking them down a bad path – a road leading to injustice where power and privilege remain with a few, and perhaps even one. John’s plainspoken exhortation was to judge rightly between what is good and bad, and then imitate the good while forsaking the bad.

Hospitality is the true litmus test between the good and the bad. An openness to the stranger, the immigrant, the migrant, the alien, the foreigner, the newcomer, and the outsider characterizes authentic fellowship. Being closed to such persons and having a xenophobic bent to others who are different is the mark of unwelcoming and inhospitable people. Hospitality serves others, whereas being inhospitable cajoles others to serve our needs.

Even Jesus, the Lord of all, did not come to this earth for people to serve him. He came to serve others and to give his life to save many people (Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45; John 13:1-17). We are to imitate the loving service and radical hospitality of the Lord Jesus. He is our example. We are to imitate Christ.

We are to have both orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right practice). Both go together like a hand in a glove. Good actions are to be the result of good and proper beliefs. The following are some thoughts about this nexus between belief and practice:

  • Hospitality (which literally means “love of the stranger”) is a way of life fundamental to orthodox Christianity, based in the person and work of Jesus.
  • God is hospitable and loves the outsider, welcoming them into the dance of the Trinity, and provides for them. Our human hospitality is to reflect this divine welcome.
  • Hospitality means extending to another a kindness typically reserved for family or friends.
  • The teaching of the New Testament emphasizes the practice of hospitality, i.e. Luke 14:12-14; Matthew 25:31-46.
  • The consistent witness of the Church in history is to lift and uphold Christian hospitality. For example, the Reformer John Calvin said, “Whatever person you meet who needs your aid, you have no reason to refuse to help them.” This was no mere theoretical advice for Calvin, whose ministry center of Geneva, Switzerland swelled with French Huguenot refugees fleeing persecution. Calvin, always the theologian, grounded his understanding of hospitality in the divine: “We should not regard what a person is and what they deserve but we should go higher – that it is God who has placed us in the world for such a purpose that we be united and joined together. God has impressed the divine image in us and has given us a common nature, which should incite us to provide one for the other.”
  • Hospitality is a practice which integrates both respect and care. St. John Chrysostom warned his congregation to show “excessive joy” when offering hospitality to avoid shaming the recipient of care.
  • Biblical hospitality does not need to know all the details of someone’s life before extending care. If Christ forgave and healed those who injured him, how could we neglect even a starving murderer? 
  • True hospitality involves a face-to-face relationship of encouragement and respect – not just a distant giving of alms. Hospitable persons pay attention to others and share life with them.
  • The great twin concerns of hospitality are universalizing the neighbor and personalizing the stranger. One reason why many of the rich have little sympathy for the poor is because they seldom visit them. Hospitality depends on us recognizing our commonalities with strangers rather than our differences.
  • This is how we evaluate our hospitality: Did we see Christ in them? Did they see Christ in me?

Hospitable God:

Give us eyes to see the deepest needs of people.

Give us hearts full of love for our neighbors as well as for the strangers we meet.

Help us understand what it means to love others as we love ourselves.

Teach us to care in a way that strengthens those who are sick.

Fill us with generosity so we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and give drink to the thirsty.

Let us be a healing balm to those who are weak and lonely and weary by offering our kindness to them.

May we remember to listen, smile, and offer a helping hand each time the opportunity presents itself. And may we conspire to create opportunities to do so.

Give us hearts of courage to risk loving our enemy.

Inspire us to go out of our way to include outsiders.

Help us to be welcoming and include all whom you send our way.

Let us be God’s hospitality in the world.

Amen.

1 Peter 4:7-11 – Practicing Hospitality

hospitality
“They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.” –Acts 2:46

The end of all things is near. Therefore, be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen. (NIV)

One of the most practical and biblical ways of demonstrating love is through hospitality. Hospitality, at its heart, is an invitation to come into my home and into my life. It is a ministry of acceptance, encouragement, restoration, and healing.  The loving work of hospitality “covers a multitude of sins” through the power of influence. When we have face-to-face conversations around the table, it prevents us from engaging in sins that would otherwise be committed if left to ourselves.

Because the end of all things is near, we need our wits about us through a determined focus on prayer, love, and hospitality. The word “hospitality” literally means, “love of the stranger.” I invite someone whom I do not know very well into my home and befriend them. This is what Jesus did for us. Although we were all estranged from God and on the outside, Jesus came to eat with us.

“Listen! I stand at the door and knock; if any hear my voice and open the door, I will come into their house and eat with them, and they will eat with me.” (Revelation 3:20, GNT)

Jesus invites us into the life of God; and, we are to invite others into our lives. Jesus has so closely identified with his people that when we practice hospitality, we are inviting Jesus in. In fact, we may not realize that some people we host are angels:

Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. (Hebrews 13:2, NIV). 

Inviting another person into my home and heart takes time and effort. Doing it without grumbling is a necessity. In an ideal world we always receive something back for our work of hospitality – an invitation from the other person, or, at least, a simple thank you. That does not always happen and cannot be the driving reason why we are generous. Hospitality is a work of love which originates from a heart that has been touched by the hospitality of God. Our earthly hospitality is a form of saying “thank you” to God for his grace to us. Complaints break into the house like unwanted burglars when we expect to receive, and do not. If you receive another person as though they were Christ himself, grumbling will likely be far from you. Instead, there will be rejoicing over the opportunity to serve Jesus.

Jesus said, “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me. And anyone who welcomes me also welcomes the one who sent me.” (Matthew 10:40, CEV).

In the New Testament world, a concrete expression of love to other believers in Jesus was providing food and shelter for Christians traveling throughout the Roman Empire. Often, the traveling strangers were itinerant evangelists spreading the message of the gospel from place to place.

Dear friend, you are faithful in what you are doing for the brothers and sisters, even though they are strangers to you. They have told the church about your love. Please send them on their way in a manner that honors God. It was for the sake of the Name that they went out, receiving no help from the pagans. We ought therefore to show hospitality to such people so that we may work together for the truth. (3 John 5-8, NIV)

At other times, believers were deprived of necessities due to occasional waves of persecution. The people Peter addressed were mostly Jewish Christians. As they faced persecution in Jerusalem, they fled to geographical places dominated by pagan Gentiles. As refugees, they were often poor and needy; and, the townspeople where they went were not hospitable. So, they had to rely on the love and hospitality of those believers they could connect with who had the means to help.

Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home. (Romans 12:13, CEB) 

There is a great need for hospitality in our world.  Many American’s circle of friends is shrinking. According to one study the number of people who said they had no one to talk to about important matters has more than doubled in the past 10 years. 35 million Americans now live alone (which is 28% of all households).  Hospitality cuts both ways for us.  We are to invite the lonely into our hearts and homes; and, the lonely are to invite others into their hearts and homes, instead of waiting for somebody to just show up.

Matthew 25.35

Food is to hospitality what weightlifting is to bodybuilders; you really need food, meals, and the sharing that goes with it to make a difference in another’s life. In biblical times, eating a meal together was a sacred affair.  To have another person in your house, sitting around your table, communicated acceptance, care, and friendship. That is why the religious leaders had such difficulty with Jesus eating with “sinners.” Jesus was unequivocally loving and accepting of such persons.

When we think about our world, it can be a sad place. Can people of different races live in peace?  Can Democrats find common ground with Republicans?  Can a Christian family carry on a civil friendship with neighbors down the street far from Christianity?  Can people worlds apart from each other get along?  The early church did. And they did it without all the stuff we have.  The early believers did it through the simplest tool of the home. No matter our gifts and abilities, each one of us can be hospitable. Something mystical happens at a dinner table that does not happen anywhere else – it opens the door to true community.

While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26:26-28, NRSV)

For the Christian, eating and ingesting bread and wine serves as a tangible way of understanding what life is to be like. We take Jesus into the depths of our lives. We ingest him, that is, we engage in an intimate relationship whereby the two of us can never be separated.

We are meant for life together, to enjoy eating and drinking together. True life is sharing both our resources and our hearts with one another.

Loving God, thank you for your generosity. I am a stranger in this world, yet, you invite me to be your guest. You lavishly offer me your hospitality and welcome me into your family. You invite me to share in the abundance of your kingdom. Help me remember that when I offer hospitality to others, I am receiving Christ into my home. Gracious God, I open my heart to those who are wounded; those who have wounded me; those who are outcasts; and to all who are searching. I want my everyday ordinary life to please you. I am grateful that there is always room at your Table; through Jesus, my Lord. Amen.