Today’s reading, this letter of Paul’s, is thought to be authentic Paul to the church in Philippi. Now, we have seen Paul in Philippi when we read about Paul and the enslaved woman with the demon, and Paul being imprisoned because he upset the system of the powerful. Paul had met Lydia there, a businesswoman and leader of the church there in Philippi.
But time has passed, and we now have this letter written by Paul, years later, possibly at the end of his ministry. He is in prison and there are those who suggest that this time in prison is while he is in Rome. If that’s true, this is around the year 60, Paul will be executed just outside the city of Rome, as was what was done for citizens of Rome, by 64.
There is an ancient art of letter writing, which is a gift I don’t have, probably because I haven’t practiced particularly well. Paul was committed to letter-writing because there wasn’t any other way to send messages. Paul would have assumed that his letters would have been read or performed publicly to a community. And he probably understood and these letters would be shared from the church in Philippi to other churches. He probably could not have imagined that we would still be reading it today.
Paul was part of a long tradition of writing while in prison. From Plato to Mandela, Dr. Bonhoeffer to Dr. King. Maybe they wrote because they knew or feared how their imprisonment would end, sometimes they were right.
Did Paul know he wouldn’t be going back to Philippi? Did he know he would only be going outside the walls of Rome but not any farther? Maybe. Maybe Paul knew that the letters he was writing there would be the last ones, he had important things left to say.
Now, most of the time Paul was writing, he was it was trying to reconcile the local church community to itself when they were fighting over food and circumcision. Most of the time Paul was writing with the goal of conflict resolution, creating theology as he went. Often the letters began like the letter to the churches in Galatia that we looked at last summer: It starts very much the same as what we just read to Philippi: Paul an apostle, to the church in Galatia, grace and peace to you. By verse 6 Paul says: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Jesus Christ and you are turning to a different gospel.” Paul was mad.
Of course, parents and teachers don’t have favorites when it comes to the kids in their lives. But I think Paul had a favorite church and I think it might have been Philippi. This letter is gushing. It is filled to the brim with gratitude and with longing and with hope and with encouragement.
The city of Philippi was named for the Greek leader Alexander the Great’s father Philip of Macedon. At the beginning of the century it had been a favorite city of Caesar Augustus who had made it the place for his military leadership to retire. And there continue to be a deep connection between the Empire, the military, and the city of Philippi.
So when the church in Philippi heard that Paul was imprisoned, they were shook. They didn’t know what that would mean for them. They didn’t know what it would mean for the movement and for the church. With Paul in prison, does that mean there’s no one leading them? Does that mean they’re on their own? And does it mean whatever persecution that Paul has gotten swept up in is heading towards them? They would clearly remember that they were a church that started out of upsetting the powerful and prison. I imagine when they heard that Paul was in prison, they was a lot of fear and maybe hopelessness.
The church in Philippi lived in that uncertainty and fear. They were unsure of who was going to lead them. They were sure of who was going to be in charge. They didn’t know what the church would like without Paul. The world around them was changing and they didn’t know what to expect.
We can understand what that might look like or feel like or be like. We are living in uncertainty of what the church looks like in light of COVID, hoping to go back to the way things had been but we kind of know that nothing will ever be the same again, and that is scary. This congregation lived in the uncertainty of leadership during a pastoral transition. And we are always living in the confusion of just being congregational, a system that is awesome, but also is not the most efficient way of accomplishing things.
To this uncertainty comes Paul’s most encouraging letter to the church in Philippi. Paul might have something to say to them, and to us.
I do want to take a moment in this time of transition to comment on the end portion of our reading, when Paul talks about not making a big deal out of other people who were preaching the gospel for reasons that he would think were selfishly motivated. He was probably talking about Peter because Paul and Peter notoriously disagreed about just about everything. I don’t think Paul had any clear concept of what would happen, that Christianity would get wrapped up into the Empire that would ultimately kill him. Paul had no concept of how it would play out when the Empire and Christianity would become intertwined.
So, here we are today there and there are a lot of people who are speaking and preaching and using the name of Jesus. We could do like Paul suggests just, let it go. But I don’t think Paul meant the things that we have been seeing lately, and well, long before recently.
I don’t think that Paul meant we should accept abuse of the name of God that has lead to exclusion, abuse, hatred, and murder. I don’t think Paul’s writing about motivations would have in his wildest dreams would have considered that some proclaimers of the word would be do so while entrenched in empire, for the purpose of the powerful, to the detriment of those on the margins, or at the cost of another’s life.
I am about to say that we are all partners in the ministry of Jesus Christ but it needs to not include people who think White nationalism is instituted by Jesus himself and use that as a cause to inflict pain on others. And we’re gonna talk for a few weeks this summer about the 10 Commandments and one of them says not to use Lord’s name in vain. We’re told that it’s about not saying “Jesus” when you stub your toe. Still, I think it really means don’t use God’s name to justify one’s abusive, hate-filled, violent behaviors, like shooting at groceries stores, black churches, doctors when you don’t like what they do, justifying genocide, anti-Semitism… it’s been a long week.
*Okay, Paul says to the community in Philippi, to the followers, to the leaders, to the brand new converts, to those that he had met the 1st time that he went to Philippi all those years ago that they are all partners in this ministry together. He does say that there are different ways that people are involved there are leaders in the church, but it is not that he is in charge of everyone else.
In a letter to the church in Corinth, because they needed it, Paul is super specific about how every member of the community has a role has a job has a place has a calling but each one is important and vital to the care of the whole. It seems that Paul even thinks that he is not more important than the whole. It’s that way even if Paul isn’t in jail, even if Paul is in prison for years, even if Paul is killed: the mission isn’t about Paul. The church isn’t about Paul. It’s about Jesus and so we are then partners in the ministry together. Even if we don’t always agree with what that looks like, even if we struggle with what it means to be church, and how we do that together: it is about doing it together.
And Paul says that his work hasn’t stopped. Even though Paul is imprisoned, he’s still able to share the good news, the love of Jesus with the people around him, with his jailers, and with the other prisoners. Now that this isn’t to say that God sent Paul into prison to save these people because, well, that just seems abusive.
Professor, academic and author Kate Bowler first book was from her studying of the prosperity gospel, the theology that if you do good you will get good in return, usually it has to do with money. She absolutely didn’t agree with this understanding, until she realized that she kinda did things that if she lived a good life she’d have a long one. In 2015, at the age of 35, with a new baby, and a dream job, she was diagnosed with stage four cancer. She wrote an op-ed, then a book titled: Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved. In it she writes about how her husband and she received emails from people giving a reason, saying that there must be a reason that this happened to her, not necessarily because Kate needed a reason but because the person sending the message needs there to be a reason for why the world is the way it is, why Kate might have gotten sick.
Kate talks about how when she thought she was going to die, she didn’t experience anger or fear but love. She felt the surrounding love of God and the increased ability to live in compassion and empathy and care for the struggles of those around her. It didn’t last, and she knew it wouldn’t, all she has now is the memory of it. Would she give all of that up to be in the before? Before she was sick? Yes, absolutely. But it doesn’t mean that there wasn’t something that came out if it. It’s not a reason, but there are consequences.
Kate could have spent her whole time not being open and aware to the world around her. It didn’t happen for a reason, it doesn’t mean God wasn’t there. Paul might be in prison and it didn’t happen because God put him there it doesn’t mean God wasn’t there. Everyone of us has something to give and something to offer. Each and every one of us can be open to the divine that is already here. Maybe it’s about being open to what God is doing, maybe it makes you more aware. Maybe you are able to see and love the world more. Maybe you are able to show and share love, even in those times when it seems like God ought to be so far from here, even in the times when we think that we’re not ok enough, even when we think that we’re not enough yet.
We are fooling ourselves when we think that we are not already, not enough, not in the right place for doing the things we are called to do. We hurt fooling ourselves if we think God isn’t already in that place where we are already working things out for good already to show and to share love. It’s not about going through something for the purpose of revealing God’s love but it might be recognizing that those things aren’t wasted. This is reverend Rosie, and she told a story of before she went to seminary and before she was a pastor. She was certain her past would preclude her from being in the ministry. But it was a pastor friend of hers who said: I can be present for a person with a history of addiction but I cannot know their struggles but you can. Our pasts, our presents, our futures, our education or lack of education, our baggage does not keep from the call of God on our lives. You are enough and you are called and you are where you need to be to share God’s love.
It is not my church, nor my mission, it is all of ours, together. And we are all in the right place and time and are enough to give love, to share love, because that is the message and the call of Jesus. That is the ministry of this church as we come together as we share and fellowship, as we care for the people in the world and the community around us and beyond.
We’re in this ministry and we’re in this life together: whether it is Friday night with a not quite bonfire cause it was raining. We’re helping with Sunday school or Food for family promise or supporting an immigrant family or caring for those imprisoned.
We are in ministry together, centered around the love of Jesus that feeds, heals, hopes, houses, clothes, and visits. It is about living the mission of Jesus, even in when it seems that things are uncertain, even when you don’t feel prepared, especially when it isn’t the motives of those preaching the gospel but that some have completely changed it to serve their purposes! It is especially important that we preach love, that we live love, that we, from the place where we are, we proclaim that the love Jesus is expansive, abundant, hope-filled, and generous.
It might be in big ways or it might be in small ways, it might be in ways that are unseen but we are doing this together. It is the call that we have for each other at baptism: to live into the love of Christ for each other and the world.
I thank God for you every time I think of you. And I thank God for the work that God is doing in your life, where you are right now. And I thank God for the call and the call you have on your life where you are as you are to be a gift to this church, this community, and the world.