(Here is my sermon preached on Sunday, October 11, 2020. It was in response to the Epistle reading for the day – Philippians 4:1-9)
I read a commentary this week on the selected passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians that really nailed it. It’s by Ekapurta Tupamahu, who is an Assistant Professor of New Testament at Portland Seminary. Here’s a portion of what he wrote:
“People in the United States are inhabiting two different worlds, watching different news cycles, hearing different radio talk shows, reading different newspapers. Echo chamber discussions with like-minded people are our main mode of political engagement. There is a serious lack of respectful dialogue between people with different views, different opinions, different ways of life. The whole country seems to be divided into two camps: the liberal vs. the conservative, Republicans vs. Democrats, the urban vs. the rural, the South vs. the North, and so on.
The consequence of the partisan politics is clear: people are ready to put loyalty to party above humanity, above morality, above common good, above justice and mercy, above human decency and dignity. That we find it more acceptable that over two hundred thousand fellow humans in this country alone have died from COVID-19 than to cross political lines to find the best way out of this problem, we have hit a new low.”
Frankly I think he’s being generous in his assessment. We’re called the United States, but I’m having real difficulty picking out anything that we as a nation are united about – expect maybe being angry over an endless list of supposed grievances.
We’re at a low point. We think that regardless of our hoped-for outcome, this all will pass and change when the election is over. Really, do we really think that, or are we just selling that idea to ourselves because it’s a heck of a lot more hopeful than the trajectory we are hurtling towards?
I’m sorry to shatter your illusions, but the false hope that so many pin on our partisan political institutions and candidates isn’t going to magically bring us to some kind of utopian national salvation. We’ll pass right through Nov. 3, Election Day, and the days after – regardless of whether someone has won or not. No salvation will be found. We’ll pass right through Jan. 20, Inauguration day. No salvation will be found then either, regardless of who takes that oath of office on the Capital steps.
Remember, Jan. 21 starts the next election cycle. It never ends, and it never will. It’s designed to be that way. The parties will continue to sell us a false gospel message – that they and their candidates are the salvation of the nation, that the other party is the enemy, and that if you just give your loyalty and your money to them, then sometime in the future, you might experience the utopia that they are selling. Frankly, it takes a lot more faith to believe this false gospel message than it does to believe Jesus and his Gospel.
Paul understood this very well. Paul’s letter to the Philippians isn’t just a letter of private rejoicing and encouragement. It’s a letter that speaks into the heart of a city that is deeply attached to another false gospel narrative – that one being the gospel of the Roman empire.
That gospel was a message that told its hearers that Rome was eternal, it was divinely instituted and maintained. That Rome was the utopia of civilization. And that only the Roman Emperor and his associates offered salvation. In case there is any doubt about this – all you have to do is hear the actual titles that the Emperor had – King, Master, Our Lord, Most Noble, Pious and Blessed, Chief Priest, First Citizen, Prince of Youth, and Venerable, just to name a few.
When the emperor’s army was victorious, it was customary for messengers of the emperor to evangelize the good news of Rome for all to hear so that it could bring great joy to the masses and the people would know that their savior was triumphant. I’m not making any of that up or speaking in hyperbole or exaggeration. That’s what the empire was about and that’s the actual language they used. That’s how it operated. That’s what Paul was dealing with in Philippi.
It’s important to remember that Philippi was a Roman colony, very loyal to Rome. Citizens in Philippi enjoyed the same legal rights as those in Italian cities. In other words, most of the residents were fully in tune with the Roman gospel.
The Christians in this city were the minority. They were not the dominant culture there. Their loyalty to Jesus puts them in direct conflict with the vast majority of the residents of Philippi who swore allegiance to Rome and the emperor and all he stood for. There was a strong and loyal following of an array of Roman, Greek, and other pagan gods. These Christians knew quite literally the saying that Jesus is Lord, and Caesar was not. And they knew how dangerous a message that was.
You see, not everything what great. Paul wrote this letter from prison. Paul knew Philippi well. He launched the church there – the first on the European continent, along with the first convert – Lydia. In Acts 16 we hear about his and Silas’ encounter in Philippi. He casts a spirit out of a slave girl, and her owners get really upset, form a riot, strip them, beat them, and have them thrown in prison. Paul and Silas disturbed the so-called peace due to their proclamation of Jesus as Lord. And they paid the consequence of that. But with great joy, not as a burden.
At the beginning of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he has a prayer for the church in Philippi. Vs. 9-11 show this. Paul writes, “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.”
This becomes Paul’s theme throughout the letter. We hear it in today’s Epistle reading starting in Chapter 4, verse 8, “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”
This is the platform of Jesus and what it means to follow Jesus. Go back to the beginning of the chapter 4, verse 1 – It actually starts with this word – Therefore. “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.” When we hear “Therefore” followed by anything, we should pay attention. “Therefore” links what was just said or written to what comes after. So, what led to the conclusion of therefore?
Philippians 3:17-21 states, “Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.
But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation so that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.”
Do you hear that? Paul had the audacity to say in the heart of a city loyal to Rome that this way of living – following Christ, proclaiming him as savior – those things are important and tie us to our true allegiance. Paul uses the phrase “our citizenship is in heaven.” It’s another way of saying that Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not. The kingdom of God is what we swear allegiance to, not Rome. No wonder Paul ends up beheaded.
Paul’s message is just as needed today, as it was some 2000 years ago in a far away land. And it is just as radical today as it was then, regardless of where it is proclaimed.
Chapter 4, verse 2 says, “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.” There is extra emphasis there. Paul could have easily written I urge Euodia and Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord, but he didn’t. He specifically urges each of these women individually to be of the same mind in the Lord.
And what does it mean to be of the same mind in the Lord? It doesn’t mean they have to agree on everything. It doesn’t mean that they have to have all the same beliefs. It does mean that they recognize that they are linked closely together because of Jesus. They are two parts of the same body – the Body of Christ. It is in Christ that they have their identity, not anything else. Any differences they have are small in comparison as their being a part of the same body of Christ. The idea is to focus on Jesus, what he is about, and what he calls on us to be and how to live. To serve one another. To love our neighbor and our enemy. To see the image of God in all people – regardless of their citizenship, identity, or anything else.
Paul gives us that list in verses 8-9, “whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”
What a powerful message. A message I need to hear, over and over again. How easy it is to get sucked into the divisions that exist around us and within us. How easy it is to get sucked in, like a black hole, to the animosity and anger that surrounds us. How easy it is to get sucked into the false gospel narratives that are loudly proclaimed in news media and social media. How easy it is to get sucked into the scapegoating and finger pointing of others. How easy it is to get sucked into the false gospel narratives of the donkey and the elephant.
As Christians, our identity isn’t with them, it is with the Lamb instead and all that he stands for and is about. Paul reminds us that our citizenship is in heaven. And Paul has provided us with a list of the responsibilities of that citizenship. And these don’t come because we have to try really hard to do them. They come as a result of what Jesus has already done in us. We merely live them out.
But it’s easy to forget when we are inundated with other messages that try to convince us that our identity is attached to something other than Jesus. It’s easy to forget when we are slammed with messages that try to convince us that our salvation isn’t with the Lamb, but with a donkey or an elephant. That’s why we hear Scripture each week. That’s why we are called to open Scripture throughout the week. To pray without ceasing. To be reminded that we belong to the Lamb of God and our citizenship is in heaven. That Jesus is our identity and our salvation.
There’s an old hymn that I’m sure you are familiar with. They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love. Yes, they will know we are Christians by our love.
The hymn doesn’t say They will know we are Christians by our partisan identity. Doesn’t say they will know we are Christians by how we get angry at and full of fear of others and lash out at people because we think we are right and they are wrong.
Paul’s list in Verses 8-9 isn’t a burdensome task list – something that we need to do in order to earn something from God. Rather, it is the very recipe that Paul talks about in verse 7 – “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
That’s what allows us and empowers us to focus on what is true, what is honourable, what is just, what is pure, what is pleasing, what is commendable, what is excellent and worthy of praise. We are called on to keep doing these things. And that isn’t a burden. Rather, that is a joy because our identity is attached to Jesus, the Lamb of God. And our citizenship is in heaven. Everything else can be put aside. Jesus frees us from these other identities and loyalties and gives us peace in their place. A peace that surpasses all understanding. A peace that surpasses all the false gospel narratives that are shoved at us. A peace that surpasses the false identities that we are told we have to belong to. It is a peace that comes through the Lamb. And it guards our hearts and our minds. And it frees us to be more fully who God intends us to be. That’s a beautiful thing. A thing that lifts us up out of the new low and into a new higher way. Thanks be to God. Amen.