Paul is addressing a troubled church in Philippi. Paul has a real conundrum on his hand. There was controversy among new Christians as to exactly how a Gentile would convert to Christianity. Did they, make converts, need to be circumcised? Division within the church is nothing new. The absolute worst meeting I have ever attended, and remember I once worked for the US Government, was a church meeting where we discussed, I kid you not, changing the coffee we would use on Sunday mornings. Now in hindsight, there were deeper issues at play but at the time, tensions ran hotter than the coffee would be once we replaced the decades-old brewing system. Controversy within the church, in our communities, comes in all shapes, sizes, and now, over our smartphones.
I do not think I have to tell anyone here this morning that we live in a time and a place where it seems like we can only have a conversation with someone else in one of the following two ways: either we stay completely on the surface, talking about things like the weather or our kids, or we will go deep with only those people who agree with what we are saying. To associate with or talk in a meaningful way with someone we disagree with theologically, politically, or any other way seems impossible lately.The conversations that we try to have online via email, Twitter, or Facebook tend to go from bad to horrifying in less than 140 characters.
When these conversations go from bad to horrific, one of two things happens. Either we become the victorious hero who battled in the Colosseum of cyberspace, showing no mercy to our heathen opponent. Or, we become the victim who was mercilessly attacked for no other reason than being a good person. When we are the latter, allies quickly rally behind us and we return to the of the echo chamber.
WE HAVE A CHOICE TO: WE CAN RETREAT TO SAFETY OR REMAIN ENGAGED IN DIFFICULT DIALOGUE WHERE, AT TIMES, WE WILL BE HARD-PRESSED TO FIND AN ALLY OR IT WILL SEEM LIKE WE ARE SIMPLY ALL ALONE.
Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi is a jailhouse letter. And he knew that space all too well. The scene of imprisonment was not uncommon for Paul. From the Book of Acts we know at least three times he was imprisoned. In this letter, Paul is responding to the prayers and support he has received during his imprisonment from the church in Philippi.
For those who have been in church for more than a few hours it should come as no surprise that Christians disagree. Theology, doctrine, polity, and music are just the short-list. We can look back 500 years and see how the Protestant Reformation took shape through our differences. Martin Luther was not alone in his discontent towards the Catholic Church The first 1500 years of the Church were shaped profoundly by disagreement over heresy, orthodoxy, and priestly-powers. One of the earliest documents in the Christian tradition is called the Didache. This document was the first handbook for the church, explaining how to perform baptisms, gather around the Lord’s table, and live in community with one another. The Didache sought to address many of the disagreements and controversies within the early church.
In the letter to Philippi, Paul is addressing what he describes as “dogs, evil workers, and enemies of the cross.” In our reading, Paul is not suggesting any new practice for the church. Instead what Paul is doing is writing to convince the church in Philippi of the importance of unity. When he writes, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you,” Paul is using the words “your” and “you” in a plural sense. Perhaps if Paul were from Texas this would make more sense – y’all work it out because after all God is at work in y’all. And by “fear and trembling” Paul is referring to accountability. Accountability not only to one another but all to the One to whom every knee shall bow (we’ll come back to that).
Our salvation as individuals is hinged upon how we choose to do this church-thing together.
If we are a church divided into three services or several small-groups, never willing to be the church with “those people” then we are doing it wrong. If we are a church divided into liberals and conservatives we are doing it wrong. If we are church divided by traditional music and modern music we are doing it wrong.
It is so easy for us to live out our lives in the church insulated from those we do not agree with. This results in divineness, which as Paul tells us is contrary to how God is at work in us, Christ’s body. And our obedience to this, living in unity with one another, is of the utmost importance because of Christ’s obedience to the point of death. We try to place limits on our commitment not just to church but to our own discipleship. And if we are not tending to our own discipleship, how consistent are we being in our commitment to Christ’s lordship own every aspect of our lives.
Does our commitment mirror what the crowds are doing? Meaning, we follow the trends of others when it comes to our level of commitment to Christ’s lordship.
Are we cynical? The world is so screwed up or God isn’t answering my prayers so what does it matter?
Perhaps we are apathetic, we simply do not care. Church is great and Jesus is a good guy but I am not going to reorient my life because what does it really matter.
Two weeks ago Bishop Lewis shared with us the vision of the Virginia Annual Conference: to be “disciples of Jesus Christ who are lifelong learners, who influence others to serve.” We cannot live into this vision as individuals. Jesus did not send out his disciples alone and because of this we should not expect to be faithful disciples by ourselves. We cannot learn by ourselves and we certainly cannot influence others on our own.
Are we our own lords, controlling (or at least trying to) every aspect of our lives, leaving no room for God to work in and through us?
We have all been there – engaged in a conversation turned argument over an idol we did not know we were subject to. We begin with well-meaning ideas and thoughts, yet quickly we turn towards rhetoric, talking points, and then personal attacks. These arguments are divisive, lack functionality for a healthy community, and only seek to draw us away from the one lord who claims us despite our obedience towards others.
When we live with Christ as our lord and still stumble, we may feel as though it is impossible to live a life proclaiming that in Christ, the one who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness… he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death,” we find new life.
But when we are obedient to Christ’s lordship as individuals, we are able to live together as a community and not as different services, Sunday school classes, or small groups. Further, we are then allowing God to work in and through us as a community.
WHAT I DO MATTERS BECAUSE YOU DEPEND ON ME. WHAT YOU DO MATTERS BECAUSE A COMMUNITY OF DISCIPLES IS IMPOSSIBLE WITHOUT YOU. THEY WAY WE SPEAK OF ONE ANOTHER MATTERS BECAUSE WHEN WE SPEAK POORLY OF OTHER DISCIPLES WE ARE SHOWING TO THE WORLD HOW WE FAIL EACH OTHER. WE ARE THEN TELLING THE WORLD THAT OUR DIFFERENCES ARE BIGGER THAN THE ONE WHO CREATED AND THE ONE WHO WAS PRESENT AT CREATION.
As a community obedient to Christ’s lordship we are freed to press one another to commit to the work of Jesus Christ. We are freed to humble ourselves just as Christ humbled himself. There is no hierarchy in the Kingdom of God. Christ is the one and only lord. We free to forgive as Christ did and continues to do so. We freed love just as Christ loves, going to the margins of our community, telling those who have been cast aside or told they are unworthy of love that not only has God never stopped loving them but that we love them as well. And we freed to believe as Christ believed. Never wavering. Always looking to God, even in times of pain and suffering.
Suffering is one of those church words that cause many people to squirm and become uncomfortable, because after all, no one wants to suffer. By definition, suffering is not inherently good. But remember that in Christ’s own suffering we find new life; suffering is thus redefined as way in which God can be glorified. And so while not all of us here will suffer for our faith, others might. When we walk alongside fellow disciples who are suffering, we become witnesses to Christ’s ability to overcome suffering.
Paul’s letter to a divided church, both then and now, along with the promise of God working in and through us gives us hope, reminding us that even if we do not agree, even if wehave a semi-public blow out, that God is working in the midst of what seems like chaos to us. When we are feeling hard-pressed, feeling like we or they are doing it wrong, or that what we are doing does not matter, we can still lift our voices, joining the hymn of the church in Philippi and proclaiming – “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God… emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness… humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
When we live in the way of confession to Christ, we bend our knees to nothing but Christ. In the act of kneeling we are proclaiming that the living God is at work here at Mount Olivet, just as our Creator was at work in the generations before us. This Good News serves as a witness to our sisters and brothers in christ as well as those who believe that the church is hypocritical, serves only as a social club, or have been told they are unworthy of God’s love.