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.

Philippians 1:18-26 – Do What’s Most Important

A mosaic of the Apostle Paul, Ravenna, Italy, 5th century C.E.

But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.

Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and God’s provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me. (New International Version)

So, what do you think leads to disunity in any group, whether in a church or elsewhere?….

Yes, unfortunately, there are many things which can divide a group of people. Chances are that discord comes from a lack of listening and love. And behind that lack is a spirit that desires attention and accolades. In other words, there cannot be unity whenever everyone wants to take credit for what’s good and blame others for what’s bad.

The Apostle Paul, writer of the letter to the Philippian Church, had a humble self-effacing approach to ministry. Paul knew exactly what was important to him and the advancement of the Church, namely, that Jesus Christ is proclaimed, that the good news of grace and forgiveness in Christ is given to people.

“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”

Mark Twain

And so, for Paul, his purpose was crystal clear. Although he really didn’t like bad attitudes and impure motives, if the message of Christ was preached, that was of upmost significance. It didn’t matter to him if people took credit for his work, or not. Not a lot of people can say that.

The Apostle focused on himself. Ultimately, we cannot control anyone; we can only practice self-control. And that is exactly what Paul did. Notice that in today’s New Testament lesson, Paul expressed his own desire to live a life of hope, courage, and selfless ministry. He understood that all the troubles he had experienced up to this point, would likely keep happening in this earthly life.

Paul could have started a new apostles’ retirement community, stepped out of the fray, and simply studied Torah all day. It’s probably what he really wanted to do. But Paul knew better. He knew it was better for all the churches he planted that he keep laboring on their behalf.

Even though Paul was ready to die and be with his Savior forever, he wasn’t going to grab control that wasn’t his. Someday he would die, or Christ will return before that time. Until then, he was going to do his darndest to ensure the gospel of Jesus is spread far and wide.

A spiritually healthy believer in Jesus both longs for heaven and Christ, and also puts their head down and faithfully plugs away with listening to others and loving them to Jesus with gracious words of forgiveness and merciful acts of kindness.

I imagine when Paul wrote this letter, he was downright tired. I can relate. Laboring day after day as a hospital chaplain and a church pastor often leaves me with little rest and carrying the emotional burdens of both places. There are so many people who need basic human kindness, common decency, and focused encouragement. And they don’t get it because there are far too many people far too absorbed in maintaining mastery of their very small worlds.

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Socrates

There are days I’d like nothing more than retreat to the Northwoods of Wisconsin, read and write in a small cabin, and catch fresh walleye for my supper. Maybe that will happen someday, but not today. Today is all we have. Today is the day of salvation. There will not always be Today. Christ is coming. Then it will be tomorrow. And tomorrow is too late for too many people.

So, I continue, working with all the energy (or lack thereof) which the good Lord gives me. After all, we are not God. Everyone on this planet has only a finite amount of energy and life. The question then becomes, How will you spend your energy and your finite resources?

I suggest we take our cues from good old Apostle Paul and not bad old Jacob Marley, who didn’t get the picture until it was too late. I’d rather live right, die well, and enjoy eternity – instead of living like a peacock, dying kicking and screaming, and having a miserable eternity.

In this Advent season, we have the opportunity to focus on what’s most important, then live with those priorities in the next year.

May it be so, to the glory of God.

Philippians 4:10-20 – Be Generous

I’m glad in God, far happier than you would ever guess—happy that you’re again showing such strong concern for me. Not that you ever quit praying and thinking about me. You just had no chance to show it. Actually, I don’t have a sense of needing anything personally. I’ve learned by now to be quite content whatever my circumstances. I’m just as happy with little as with much, with much as with little. I’ve found the recipe for being happy whether full or hungry, hands full or hands empty. Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am. I don’t mean that your help didn’t mean a lot to me—it did. It was a beautiful thing that you came alongside me in my troubles.

You Philippians well know, and you can be sure I’ll never forget it, that when I first left Macedonia province, venturing out with the Message, not one church helped out in the give-and-take of this work except you. You were the only one. Even while I was in Thessalonica, you helped out—and not only once, but twice. Not that I’m looking for handouts, but I do want you to experience the blessing that issues from generosity.

And now I have it all—and keep getting more! The gifts you sent with Epaphroditus were more than enough, like a sweet-smelling sacrifice roasting on the altar, filling the air with fragrance, pleasing God to no end. You can be sure that God will take care of everything you need, his generosity exceeding even yours in the glory that pours from Jesus. Our God and Father abounds in glory that just pours out into eternity. Yes. (The Message)

“It takes generosity to discover the whole through others. If you realize you are only a violin, you can open yourself up to the world by playing your role in the concert.” 

Jacques-Yves Cousteau

Who is “you?”

That’s a question more significant than “you” might think….

In the English language, the words “you” and “your” can be either singular or plural. One must determine which it is by the sentence and surrounding context. 

In the language of New Testament Greek, however, this is not the case. We clearly know which words are singular and which are plural because they aren’t spelled the same, as in English. 

It is important to know that in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians, all the “you” pronouns are plural. Yep. Every single one of them. This is significant because the theme of unity and solidarity runs powerfully and affectionately through the entire book.

Everyone in the Philippian church, not just an individual or two, shared in Paul’s troubles with him. They partnered with him through financial resources, prayer, and ministry. Paul was quite confident that every need the Philippians encountered would be supplied by the riches of God because they had learned a valuable lesson from Paul and discovered a vital lesson about their church. 

The Philippians were taught by Paul that the practice of contentment in all circumstances would bring unity, not division. In fact, contentment eases a group’s normal anxieties. And contentment comes from the practice of gratitude. What’s more, the Philippians also experienced firsthand the seeming paradox that through the practice of giving they become rich. 

Trying to do any of this as a single solitary individual will not work – because gratitude, giving, and contentment are bonded to community. It’s a lot like spiritual gifts. We aren’t gifted with a speaking gift just to stand in front of the mirror and talk at ourselves. We aren’t gifted with serving gifts just to serve ourselves. And so, it is with giving and receiving, gratitude and thanksgiving, peace and contentment. They’re meant to be done in the context of a group.

We are not to be islands only operating at the level of individuation. Believers are designed by God and hard-wired into our spiritual DNA to know the blessing of partnering and working together in the unity of the gospel.  Learning contentment and generosity go hand-in-hand. 

Hoarding actually creates anxiety, whereas a collective generous spirit leads inexorably toward satisfaction and joy. If we want to be free of division and of having that constant uptight feeling, then we must be wildly generous. 

Generosity comes in all shapes and sizes. The big idea is that it is meant to bless others. Here are some ways anyone can be generous:

  1. If you can tip generously, do it. If not, be effusive in offering gratitude to others who serve you. If in doubt, always be on the side of grace and say thanks for everything.
  2. Share your knowledge, expertise, or ability. Hoarding doesn’t just have to do with money or stuff. People can also hoard their wisdom and abilities. Generously and freely sharing is a way to loosen up the gratitude and contentment so that burdens don’t become too heavy to bear.
  3. Give yourself to a cause or organization you believe in, either through donating time or money. Most places can’t have enough volunteers. Just be willing to let them dictate what needs to be done. Generously listen to their needs and wants.
  4. Compliment at least one person every day. Be generous with words of encouragement. It is a myth that complimenting another will give them a big head. Just the opposite is true. A lack of genuine encouragement causes a person to feel small.
  5. Give blood. It truly saves lives. Need I say more?

Go ahead, try it; you’ll like it. Be generous with your money, generous with your words of encouragement toward others, and generous with your gratitude to God.  Find out whether or not this changes your level of contentment in life.

Whether you do something big or small, the impact an act of generosity can have on someone else may be life changing. And it can completely change a group dynamic from stingy and critical to open and affirming.

Who ought to be generous? Yes, “you!”

Generous God, your storehouse of grace and mercy is infinite and unending.  Help me to partner with you in a manner that my generosity flows in the same way that yours does so that Jesus Christ is glorified, and his church is edified.  Amen.

Philippians 2:5-11 – Palm Sunday

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

Therefore, God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father. (NIV)

I often take the posture of kneeling or prostrating when I pray. I do this, not because I think my prayers are more effective that way, but because this embodies my petitions with a recognition of Christ’s lordship over my life. Also, for me, there is no experience quite like using the kneelers on church pews and bowing together in a common experience of recognizing the lordship of Jesus Christ.

I sometimes ponder a question as I am on my knees: What kind of people would we be if we looked like these verses in Philippians?  The Apostle Paul said to the church in Philippi that their “attitude” should be the same as that of Christ Jesus. Their mindset, the way they think about everything, ought to be just like the mind of Christ. If we want to know how to think well and live well, how to relate to others in a good way, then we ought to thoroughly adopt the mind and the attitude of Jesus.  

How we should think and live comes from God. Within the life of the triune God exists three persons: Father, Son, and Spirit. Within this great three-in-one God exists perfect love, absolute holiness, united harmony, and constant respect. The Holy Scriptures tell us that just as God is holy, we are to be holy. Just as God is love, so we are to love one another. Just as God is harmonious, we are to live in harmony with one another. And just as God is supremely exemplified in the person of Jesus as a humble servant, so we are to practice humility and service in all our relations.

None of this is optional for the Christian. There is no place in the believer’s life for pride, posturing, and power-broking. There is to be humility, taking the posture of lowliness, and using any kind of influence for the benefit and encouragement of others – just like Jesus did while on this earth.

In a world pre-occupied with power and control, safety and security, influence and throwing its weight around, there is Jesus. He did just the opposite of engaging in upward mobility; he practiced downward mobility, and in doing so Christ descended into greatness as Lord and Savior.

Jesus did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped. The pre-incarnate Christ did not sit in heaven as the second person of the Trinity and hold onto his lofty position with tight fists – he did not grasp it tightly. When Jesus came to this earth, there was a humble willingness to open his hands and relinquish his rights and privileges as God. Christ made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant. Jesus gladly, not reluctantly, emptied himself for us. Jesus became one of us.

The television series, Undercover Boss, is a reality show in which high-level corporate executives leave the comfort of their offices and secretly take low-level jobs within their companies to find out how things are really working and what their employees are honestly thinking about their jobs and what is happening. In the process of this undercover mission, they learn of the perceptions about their companies, the spirit of their work forces and — maybe — something about themselves as well.

None of the executives cease to be executives. They just make a willing decision to take the lowest level job in their own company to hopefully benefit the employees and the entire corporation. The best episodes are when the most generous executives go above and beyond helping the employees around them at the end of the show. 

Jesus descended to earth. He never ceased to be God. Yet, Christ willingly put his kingly robe in the closet and donned Dickies and work boots. He came among us and purposely limited himself to identify with us fully – and secured for us the greatest generosity imaginable – an answer to the problem of guilt and shame through forgiveness of sins.

Jesus became a servant. He completely tied himself to us. Jesus did not come to this earth seeking to be served, but sought to serve and give his life as a ransom for many. Christ kept going lower and lower to the point of descending to the greatest humiliation of all – death on a cross. Jesus endured the ultimate shame of the ancient world by dying a terrible death. The King of the universe was killed by vicious humanity so that he might redeem and save those very same people from their terrible plight of bondage to evil.

We are to be humble people, embracing a lowly status of slaves to God and to one another. The ancient Philippian church had a real problem with pride which is why Paul talked about emulating the mind and attitude of Christ in his humiliation. The following are exhortations Paul gave to the Philippians, which were to reflect the practice of humility in relationships:

  • Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ (1:27). 
  • Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves (2:3). 
  • Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling (2:12). 
  • Do everything without complaining or arguing (2:14). 
  • Join with others in following my example and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you (3:17). 
  • Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God (4:6). 

Because of Christ’s humble obedience to the Father, he was exalted from the lowest place to the highest place.  King Jesus is on the throne, above everyone and everything. Because of his descent to this earth, Christ has ascended in glory and honor. We can now see God in a new way, through Jesus. And when we do, it causes us to kneel in prayer and profess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

In the ancient world, this was subversive language. If Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not, and ultimate allegiance does not belong to the Roman Empire. If Jesus is Lord, the local gods are not. And in our day, it is no different. Historical characters and religious deities may come and go, but the issue of ultimate allegiance still pertains to us. If Jesus is Lord, no politician or celebrity is owed lordship status. Pride and arrogance are to be put down at every turn in favor of humble service and loving actions.

If we are to follow Jesus Christ truly and really, we will practice downward mobility and embrace humility. Bowing, kneeling, and prostrating will become second nature to us as we give our unflagging allegiance to Jesus. We will accept our creaturehood and God as Creator. We will live in the reality that Jesus is Sovereign over all creation. 

As we enter the Christian Holy Week, let us acknowledge and know the humiliation and exaltation of Christ….

Just watch my servant blossom!
    Exalted, tall, head and shoulders above the crowd!
But he didn’t begin that way.
    At first everyone was appalled.
He didn’t even look human—
    a ruined face, disfigured past recognition.
Nations all over the world will be in awe, taken aback,
    kings shocked into silence when they see him.
For what was unheard of they’ll see with their own eyes,
    what was unthinkable they’ll have right before them.

Who believes what we’ve heard and seen?
    Who would have thought God’s saving power would look like this?

The servant grew up before God—a scrawny seedling,
    a scrubby plant in a parched field.
There was nothing attractive about him,
    nothing to cause us to take a second look.
He was looked down on and passed over,
    a man who suffered, who knew pain firsthand.
One look at him and people turned away.
    We looked down on him, thought he was scum.
But the fact is, it was our pains he carried—
    our disfigurements, all the things wrong with us.
We thought he brought it on himself,
    that God was punishing him for his own failures.
But it was our sins that did that to him,
    that ripped and tore and crushed him—our sins!
He took the punishment, and that made us whole.
    Through his bruises we get healed.
We’re all like sheep who’ve wandered off and gotten lost.
    We’ve all done our own thing, gone our own way.
And God has piled all our sins, everything we’ve done wrong,
    on him, on him.

He was beaten, he was tortured,
    but he didn’t say a word.
Like a lamb taken to be slaughtered
    and like a sheep being sheared,
    he took it all in silence.
Justice miscarried, and he was led off—
    and did anyone really know what was happening?
He died without a thought for his own welfare,
    beaten bloody for the sins of my people.
They buried him with the wicked,
    threw him in a grave with a rich man,
Even though he’d never hurt a soul
    or said one word that wasn’t true.

Still, it’s what God had in mind all along,
    to crush him with pain.
The plan was that he gives himself as an offering for sin
    so that he’d see life come from it—life, life, and more life.
    And God’s plan will deeply prosper through him.

Out of that terrible travail of soul,
    he’ll see that it’s worth it and be glad he did it.
Through what he experienced, my righteous one, my servant,
    will make many “righteous ones,”
    as he himself carries the burden of their sins.
Therefore I’ll reward him extravagantly—
    the best of everything, the highest honors—
Because he looked death in the face and didn’t flinch,
    because he embraced the company of the lowest.
He took on his own shoulders the sin of the many,
    he took up the cause of all the black sheep. (Isaiah 52:13-53:12, MSG)