So I know last week Pastor Leanne gave us all some historical context of Paul’s letters to his church in Philippi but I thought I would give a little refresher for those of us who were not here and for those of us who just don’t remember like we used to.
Philippians is a letter that the Apostle Paul wrote to a congregation he started in city of Philippi, located in the northeastern part of Greece. Of all the churches Paul had a hand in starting, Philippi seems to have been his favorite. When Paul wrote this letter he was in prison and believed that he would soon be killed by the Roman Empire for living out and sharing the teachings of Jesus. Which means, for Paul, this is a farewell letter. These are possibly the last words he will ever be able to say to this community of people he loves so dearly. And Paul writes this letter the way I think many of us would if we were face to face with our own death. When faced with death, we start to open up our hearts and share the things that we’ve always wanted to say but never had the courage to. Young parents diagnosed with terminal cancer will record videos on the things they always wanted to tell and teach their children. Siblings and friends will sometimes apologize for something that fractured the relationship years ago. When you think you are about to die, you cut through the meaningless chatter of life and you start to say the things that you think people need to hear. Which is what Paul is doing here in this letter. In this farewell letter to the Philippians, Paul is saying those important final words that he wants his community needs to hear.
In the small section of the letter we heard today, Paul has these great one-liners of guidance and encouragement to the people of Philippi and they can certainly be of use to us today. Do nothing from selfish ambition. Regard others as better than yourselves. Don’t worry about your own interests, but be concerned for the interests of others. He shows them what it looks like to live as a disciple of Jesus, which is what Paul hopes for this community. That they will live as disciples of Jesus by giving to others rather than getting for themselves. Paul is speaking to the community as a whole and not to an individual. He is trying to make it clear that this life is truly about we and not me.
If there is comfort from love, if there is sharing of the spirit, if there is tenderness and compassion…then “complete my joy” Paul says and there will be evidence of having the same love and being of one spirit and one mind in unity. If you are truly living all these things, then this would be true.
What Paul is telling them is…
“If you have been encouraged in Christ because of my ministry, because of what God is doing in your midst (which I know you have), if you’ve been comforted by His love (which I know you have), and have experienced fellowship with God’s Spirit (which I know you have), then let those realities unite you.
And it’s the same call to us this morning. Paul is asking, “Has God given to you? Then I’m calling you to give to others!” But Paul knows that this unity to which God has called them is easier said than done.
Truth be told, the Philippians had a problem. They were divided among many things. They did have one thing in common though, self interest. One wanted this, another wanted that and yet another wanted something altogether different. Sounding familiar?
Paul knew that the church in Philippi would never reach their potential to be the body of Christ until they overcame their division. And so it is for us also.
We are people who are so divided and it seems to be getting worse as the years go on. We refuse to come together to protect children who are simply trying to attend school because we are so focused on our individualism and privilege of owning a gun. This division is trickling down into our small communities. Just look at our local school board elections. Parents arguing over who knows best and what should or shouldn’t be taught. Some think it’s the end of the world if their kid were to hear about the struggles of someone who may be less fortunate than they and others don’t see the harm in listening and engaging in conversation about the inequities of this world. We are so caught up in our privilege as individuals that we refuse to even contemplate what life is like for those less fortunate. We don’t want to hear it because it makes us uncomfortable…but isn’t that the point of what Paul is asking of the church? Could we learn from one another? Could we humble ourselves and seek the we, rather than me? Do we think it was easy for Jesus to humble himself to the point of death?
I would be lying if I didn’t say this is hard work! Even when we make a conscious effort at working together to overcome the barriers that divide our world, we often base our unity on the wrong things. It is much easier to try and create a sense of togetherness based on race, class, location, shared politics, or a sense of general affection than to do the truly important work of relationship building. This can lead us in truly dangerous directions. As blogger Michael Williams says, “Surface unity demands little of the powerful, and often requires silence or submission on the part of the minority.”
Christian unity is based on none of these factors. The unity of healthy churches is not based on our mutual affection, but on what Christ did for us. Paul reminds his church that the only reason they are together is because Jesus emptied himself of his divine privilege and entered into our human reality. This emptying of Himself was the subject of what many believe to be a hymn of the early church that Paul quotes in verses 6-11 of our reading today. He used the language of the early church’s worship life to remind them just who they really were. He called them to together live up to the message that they proclaimed in their song, liturgy, and prayers.
He called upon them and upon us, to live lives that look like Jesus’ life. Paul reminds us that if we are to have any credibility in the world we need the body of Christ to actually have the mind of Christ. The way we are to do this is to empty ourselves of our own egos, our own pride, and our own idols of self. By remembering who Jesus was, and what he has done for us, we are able to have a guide for our lives together.
But, sadly, over the years the term “emptying oneself” has been misused by those who would call for those already on the margins of society to participate in their own enslavement. When Paul speaks of emptying oneself he is not asking for a person’s self-destruction. Women, the poor, slaves, minorities, LGBTQ+, and others have repeatedly been asked by the already powerful to give up opportunities to live the lives that God intends for them. Paul reminds his readers that emptying oneself is not about subjugation, it is about showing the love of Christ to the world. It is only because he was powerful that Jesus was able to set aside his power for the sake of the people he loved, and to seek to restore wholeness for ALL of God’s children. This is the call Paul is asking of his church and I believe it is the call of the church today.
Paul ends today’s letter with, “Therefore…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Salvation. How do you hear that word? When we hear the word salvation I think most of us think about going to heaven. But here is the problem: the word salvation when used in the Bible is never about the afterlife.
In Scripture, salvation is always about an experience in this world. In Scripture, salvation means being liberated. Being freed from that which weighs you down. In the story of Exodus, when the Israelites were held as slaves in Egypt, the word salvation was used when Moses helped to lead them out of slavery, when they were released from the bondage of Pharaoh’s grasp. The Israelites experienced salvation in this life when they were liberated from Pharaoh. Sometimes in Scripture, salvation means being rescued from danger or whatever threatens us. All throughout the Psalms, salvation is about being rescued. Rescued from the danger of enemies. The danger of illness. Psalm 69 says, “I am lowly and in pain; let your salvation, O God, protect me.” Save me from my pain, Lord, it says. Now. Here. Let me experience salvation in being freed from pain. Not in the afterlife, but today, Lord.
Over the years the meaning of salvation has become distorted. It has gone from being about experiencing liberation from whatever is holding us back in this life to being simply about what happens to us when we die. If we can restore that Biblical understanding of what it means to experience salvation, we come to learn that when Paul writes, “work out your own salvation,” Paul is not saying, “Go and be a good enough person so that the God who lives in the sky will let you into heaven.” Instead, Paul is saying, “The way to salvation is to seek liberation, freedom, healing, fullness of life, salvation – here and now, for all of us. In this life.”
God does not live in the sky; God promises to be found in and among us. Here and now, in the ways we work together to bring about salvation here on earth. Paul says, “Work out your own salvation … for it is God who is at work in you.” And that word you…is plural. Meaning it is not just about you as an individual. It is about you and the person you’re sitting next to. It is about God being at work in and between us. In this very community.
So, in Paul’s farewell letter to the Philippians – where he wants to tell them the most important stuff because it might be his last chance – he says, “work out all of your own salvation…for it is God who is at work in you.” And he says the same to us. Work out your own salvation. But do not do it so that you can get to heaven when you die. But work out your salvation because people are in need of liberation here and now! Salvation cannot wait. Unity cannot wait. So let us go and seek liberation, healing and salvation to the people we encounter in our work, in our homes, at school, on the street, the people in this life, in this world. For that is the will of God. Amen