30 June 2015

Sermon – “Finally, Beloved…” (Philippians 4:8-23)

I don’t think it was ulterior. However, there was a motive behind my choosing Paul’s letter to the Philippians for my last few weeks of preaching at Messiah. It was all so that we could come to the verses before us this morning, which begin, “Finally, beloved…” How do we sum up ten and a half years of journeying together in Christ—ten and a half years in which so much water has gone under our collective bridge here at Messiah and yet for me at least have gone by so unbelievably quickly? It seems like just yesterday that Karen and I were sitting towards the back of the sanctuary on a Sunday morning and asking ourselves, “Is this where God is leading us?” As we left the service and walked along Ford Parkway to our car, I well remember her words: “I think I could worship in that church.” And the rest is history.
Now here we are, “Finally…” It should come as no surprise to you after hearing me preach all these years that that word “finally” is not quite as final in the original Greek as it is in English. You will find it translated elsewhere in the New Testament in such ways as “furthermore” or “from now on” or “beyond that”.[1] I recognize that these are my final words to you as your rector, as part of that precious and hallowed relationship that we have enjoyed as congregation and pastor over more than a decade. Yet I want them not to be a retrospective but prospective, looking ahead to the future that God has in store for you. But first just a little retrospection…

Brothers and sisters

In our NRSV pew Bibles Paul addresses his readers as “beloved”. The word he actually uses is “brothers”—or, more accurately, “brothers and sisters” since he clearly intended to include not only the men but also the women in the congregation such as Euodia and Syntyche. While no doubt “beloved” is an appropriate way to address one’s fellow Christians, it seems to me that “brothers and sisters” says something that is considerably more profound, that describes us at a much deeper level.
Three Sundays ago the Gospel reading included the incident in which Jesus was teaching and healing and members of his family came looking for him. We read that Jesus responded, “ ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother’ ” (Mark 3:33-35). In these early weeks of Pentecost in the Eucharistic Prayer we have been making the acclamation,
Leader  We are brothers and sisters through his blood.
All         We have died together,
  we will rise together,
  we will live together.
Our reason for going back to Nova Scotia is to be reunited with members of our family—primarily our son, our daughter-in-law and three adorable grandsons. Yet what Jesus was teaching and what we affirm in that acclamation is that there is a bond that unites us more closely even than the ties of blood, and that is the blood of Christ. Karen and I first recognized that bond with Messiah when Gayle Miels and Paul Saxton came to visit us in Halifax and talk with us about Messiah. We knew that we were with kindred spirits and that sense only grew later that summer when we came to Saint Paul and met with members of the search team, the vestry, the staff and others. Now, a decade later, as we have gone through struggles and celebrations together on both individual and communal levels, those ties have only been strengthened and deepened.
While we will be separated by distance and eventually by death, neither of those barriers can break the deep and indissoluble bond that unites us in Christ. Paul was addressing the Philippians from a great distance, and yet still as brothers and sisters, whom he loved and longed for, his joy and his crown. “It is right for me to think this way about all of you,” he wrote, “because I hold you in my heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me”[2]—and that is the way Karen and I will always feel about you.

Think on … keep on

So it is, to these dear brothers and sisters, that Paul writes some of the most beautiful and inspiring words in all of Scripture:
Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, 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.
I want to pause there for just a moment and smell the roses as it were, to breathe into our lungs the rich fragrance of each of those words.
·      “Whatever is true”—not just in the factual sense, but in the moral sense, the things that are true to God as he has revealed himself in Jesus Christ.
·      “Whatever is honorable”, that is, noble, reputable, lofty, majestic, magnificent, sublime.
·      “Whatever is just”: the word here can also mean “righteous” and is often translated that way. Eugene Peterson translates it as “authentic” and rightly so, as it has more to do with being in right relationships than with being right.
·      “Whatever is pure” can refer to chastity, but at its root it carries the sense of awakening awe, such as we find in Psalm 104: “Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all!”
·      “Whatever is pleasing”—attractive, winsome, admirable, lovely, compelling—being drawn to goodness wherever it is found. And here the opening verse of Psalm 19 comes to mind: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.”
·      “Whatever is commendable”, which in the Old King James Version of the Bible was rendered “of good report”, that is, worth listening to, or again, as Eugene Peterson puts it, gracious.
·      “If there is any excellence”, and while we may rightly commend the excellence of a great athlete or artist, scholar or leader, what we are looking at here is really moral excellence, virtue. In the words of Psalm 1, “those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord.”
·      And finally, “if there is anything worthy of praise”—and here Paul means not so much human praise as what brings pleasure to the heart of God.
I took a few moments to see if I could find in the Bible what brings God delight and I came up with this list: uprightness, humility, repentance, thankfulness, purity, truthfulness, mercy, faith, generosity.[3] It sounds peculiarly like the list that Paul has already drawn up for us and given to the Philippians. And so, Paul says, think about these things. Reflect on them. Consider them. Focus on them. Concentrate on them. Probe them. Explore them. Fill your minds with them so that there isn’t room for anything else. It’s all summed up in words that we hear every week and that we will hear later on in this morning’s service: “Lift up your hearts.” To which we answer: “We lift them to the Lord.” And that is something we need to learn to do not just on Sunday mornings as we stand at the Lord’s Table. It is developing a whole posture of mind and heart that we carry with us into every situation, every circumstance, every area of life.
But then Paul says, “Don’t stop there!” Don’t just think: act. “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me.” I have no need to tell you that the life of discipleship is not just a matter of learning to think in a certain way, but allowing the Holy Spirit to transform the whole of our lives. How many evidences of that have I seen at Messiah over the years, and long may it continue! One of my resolutions as I leave is that I may keep on doing the things that I have been privileged to learn and receive and hear from so many of you.

According to God’s riches

Paul began this passage by writing, “Finally…” Yet more than three hundred words later he still hasn’t finished what he wants to say. I have to admit that I identify with that. There is a part of me that wishes that our time together here at Messiah would never end. A couple of years ago when Bishop Russell Jacobus was preparing for his retirement from the Diocese of Fond du Lac, he told me that he had often wondered how he would know when the time had come. He shared this with another bishop whose wisdom he respected and who said to him, “You probably won’t be able point to anything specific, but you just will.” And so for me also the time has come. I could point to a number of specific factors—age and grandchildren among them. Yet more fundamentally than that, in spite of the regrets and the pain involved, I just know that this is the right time, for me and for all of us. But back to our passage this morning…
Before he concludes, Paul leaves the Philippians with one last gem. It comes in verse 19: “And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” As I leave Messiah, I do so with that assurance and I want to leave you with the same assurance. I am so grateful to be able to entrust the pastoral care of this church to Mary Gustafson, whom I believe the Lord has sent to us “for just a time as this”. I have every confidence in the leadership of our Wardens, Rachael, Mark and Anne, who not only share a deep commitment to Christ but carry out their office with wisdom, energy and a true servant heart. And the same may be said of our staff, Jeff, Paul, Ann, Janice, Judy, Bobbie and Lori, all of whom work tirelessly to serve not merely the organizational needs of the church (which they do!), but far more importantly, you its people, and above all Jesus, its Lord.
These have been a pivotal ten years. We have seen parishioners go and come. We have seen our building expand and every new corner be filled to accommodate more ministry. We have been challenged financially and yet have never lacked. We have survived General Conventions. We have pondered our place in the Episcopal Church. We have been blessed by the coming of our Karen brothers and sisters. Our life together has had its unexpected twists and turns. (And surely that is more often than not the way of God, isn’t it, who calls us to walk by faith and not by sight?) Yet who can deny that God’s gracious leading and provision have been evident throughout?
In my first sermon here exactly ten years and ten months ago, I concluded with these words:
My hope and prayer for you and me at Messiah is that we may grow as a community that has no doubt about the power of the gospel—that as we proclaim it and live it we may know daily the wonderful life-giving presence of Jesus in our midst and never be the same as a result.
While the path may not have been entirely smooth and there were bumps and potholes and even the occasional sidetrack along the way, I hope that that has been our experience together. It has certainly been mine and I will not leave this place or you people the same as when I came. But I do leave in full confidence that “my God will fully satisfy your every need according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus”.

[1]     See 1 Corinthians 1:16; Galatians 6:17; 1 Thessalonians 4:1 (KJV); 2 Timothy 4:8.
[2]     Philippians 1:7, alternative translation
[3]     See 1 Chronicles 29:7; Psalm 149:4; Psalm 51:17; Luke 15:7,10; Psalm 69:30,31; Proverbs 11:20; Proverbs 12:22; Micah 6:7,8; Micah 7:18; Hebrews 11:6; Philippians 4:18

25 June 2015

Sermon – “You, Me and the Gospel” (Romans 1:7-17)

This is the first sermon I preached at Messiah Episcopal Church, on 26 September 2004.
Preaching on an occasion such as this is a daunting experience. This is really kind of a test run—like Wilbur and Orville Wright standing on the grassy fields of Kitty Hawk a century ago and looking at their newly-constructed flying machine. They had spent months designing and building wings, fuselage, engine, propellers and all that they thought it would take to accomplish the first powered flight, not to mention years of dreaming, studying and consulting from their bicycle shop in Ohio.
In your case you have a search committee that fasted and prayed, studied, met and traveled for more than a year and a half. And I know for a fact that their dedication was mirrored many, many times over by others in this congregation, who have prayed fervently, trusted hopefully and waited patiently as events gradually unfolded.
So here we stand on the runway, and we nervously ask ourselves, like Orville and Wilbur, is it going to fly? On their fourth attempt on 17 December 1903, Wilbur managed fifty-nine seconds of flight, reaching an altitude of 852 feet, and the brothers knew that they had entered the era of human flight. Perhaps some of you are thinking already that a fifty-nine second sermon would be a good way to introduce my incumbency at Messiah. If so, I am sorry to have to disappoint you. Yet my hope for this morning is that we may begin to have some sense that we are at the beginning of a fruitful partnership, and that together by God’s grace we may have the joy of seeing this church truly soar on eagle’s wings. So would you turn with me in your Bibles to the first chapter of St Paul’s letter to the Romans as we embark on our first adventure in exploring God’s word together.
My reason for choosing this passage is that Paul’s circumstances as he wrote were very similar to mine as I stand in this pulpit this morning. This is Paul’s attempt to introduce himself to a Christian community that he soon hoped to encounter face to face. Although he had no doubt met a number of its members as he and they traveled through the Roman Empire, he had not yet had the privilege of meeting them as a congregation. So he spends some time at the beginning of this long letter reflecting on who they are, who he is, and the nature of the ministry in which they share—which is what I want us to do now in the moments that remain to us.


The first thing that Paul affirms about his fellow Christians in Rome (in verse 7) is that they are loved by God. I don’t know if you have ever paused to consider what an amazing statement this is. What Paul is speaking about here is not some generalized kind of love. There are no doubt some of you who could say that you love Canadians. And I do not for a moment doubt the genuineness of your affection. But that is not the same as saying that you love me or that you love my wife (which many of you have already shown you do even without really knowing us). In the same way the love of God, of which Paul speaks here, is a very personal, individual love. It is not merely that God loves people (which he does) or that he loves Romans (which he does) or that he loves the Christians at Rome (which again he does). It is that he loves Priscilla and Aquila, Andronicus and Junias, Ampliatus and Urbanus, Apelles, Herodion, Tryphena and Tryphosa, Rufus, and each of the rest individually and personally.
This morning I want to affirm each of you in that divine love. I hope that there is no one who will leave this place this morning without a deep sense that God loves you personally, as an individual. Perhaps you have heard the story of Karl Barth, the greatest theologian of the twentieth century, who was once asked after a lecture at Union Theological seminary what was the most profound theological statement ever made. His answer: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” You may not feel that way—I can’t say that I do all the time. You may not be able to make sense of it—and I would ask who among us does. Yet that does not alter the fact that God loves you more deeply, more constantly, than you can ever imagine.
The second thing Paul says is that they are “called to be saints”, or, as he says in verse 6, “called to belong to Jesus Christ”. You may be here for any number of reasons—perhaps curiosity to see the new rector, perhaps to test the waters, perhaps because you would never be anywhere else on a Sunday morning. Yet in a fundamental sense, whether you acknowledge it or not, you are here because, no less than the fishermen who stood repairing their nets by the Sea of Galilee, you have been called by Jesus Christ—called to follow him, called to serve him, called to become like him.
Paul’s word for it is that you have been called to be saints. It may seem a rather daunting title for us mere mortals. The word in Greek is the same as “holy”. What Paul is saying here is that when Jesus Christ calls a person, he never leaves them the same. Yes, he fully accepts us as we are. But when we are drawn to him, we are drawn into a process of transformation that continues until the day we die and will not leave any part of our lives untouched.
To spend time in the company of Jesus is to find ourselves being changed. And that is exactly what happened to these Romans. In Paul’s words their faith was being reported all over the world. Perhaps Paul was exaggerating a little when he spoke as he did. Yet the fact remained that their lives were being changed to the point that people were talking about it.
When Jesus Christ begins to make a difference in our lives, we in turn begin to make a difference in the lives of others and in our world. We become the salt and light that Jesus spoke about in the Sermon on the Mount. And I know that you are a congregation that is making a difference in many ways in the world around you—ways that do not make newspaper headlines, but I know that there are many whose lives have been touched and continue to be touched through what Jesus is doing in and among you here at Messiah. Long may that continue!


Having said a little bit about his readers in Rome, Paul goes on to reveal a few things about himself. When I met with the search committee, I told them that I saw the role of the rector in a parish as helping people to look outward and upward—outward beyond our comfort zones into the world around us, because it is so easy for us to be so absorbed by our internal life that we become a “holy huddle”; and upward in prayer, because it is always a temptation to do things on a merely human level and to forget to involve the Lord and to look to his guidance.
It seems to me that Paul saw himself doing much the same kind of thing. Twice—in verse 9 and verse 15—he shares his eagerness to proclaim the good news about Jesus. Let me tell you that I share that same eagerness. I can’t claim that every sermon I preach is a “royal George”, but nothing will give me more delight than to explore the Scriptures with you. My goal will not be to help you become some kind of walking Bible encyclopedia. Rather it is, in Paul’s words elsewhere in the New Testament, that you may be “thoroughly equipped for every good work”, that together we begin to catch a glimpse of God’s perspective on life in this increasingly complex world and make a difference in it as a result.
Paul also speaks about his prayers “at all times” on behalf of the Romans. For my part I have not ceased to pray for you since the day I accepted the call to become your rector. And I know full well that you were praying for me long before that. I count myself deeply privileged to enter a community that takes its prayer life seriously. I am humbled by your dedication.
As a result I am not sure that there is much I can teach you about prayer. Yet I trust that we can explore it together. So it is that with Paul, I recognize that we are in a partnership. I pray with him that our relationship may be one of mutual encouragement, that our exposure to one another may make us only want to grow in faith, to go deeper into the love of Christ.
There are some people I love to be around because they bring out the best in me. In their presence I can never be catty or sarcastic, for somehow they help me to become more of the person that I ought to be in Christ. Perhaps you know people like that as well. It is my hope that we can be that kind of person for one another as we seek to serve Christ here at Messiah.

The Gospel

Paul has said something about his readers and something about himself. Yet all of this is really just a preamble to his real subject, one that will take up the remaining fifteen chapters of his letter. That subject is the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ—and I would be remiss if I did not follow in his footsteps and speak about it. Three things:
Paul says that he is not ashamed of the gospel. There are many things he might have been ashamed about: his past as a persecutor of Christians, the mysterious thorn in his flesh that caused him such weakness, his delays in fulfilling his promise to make it to Rome. But one thing he was not ashamed of and that was the good news of Jesus Christ. I don’t know about you, but there are many things I would rather talk about than Jesus—the weather, sports, gardening, my health, to name just a few. To be truthful, the gospel comes rather low on my list. I wonder if the same isn’t true of some of you as well. Not that we need to be buttonholing people and shoving the gospel down their throats, but we do need to learn not to be ashamed of it, even more, to be confident in it. And Paul gives us two reasons why:
First, the gospel is the power of God. Perhaps you already know that the word Paul uses here is dunamis. It is the word from which we derive our English word “dynamite”. And so the gospel is dynamite. Those of you who are involved in Alpha know that. You have seen people’s hearts being set aflame by the gospel as you share it week by week. Over the past couple of days I have been able to spend some time leafing through this marvellous book some of you have written about yourselves. As I read it I find myself deeply moved as I see lives that have been transformed by the gospel. And that has been the experience of my own ministry again and again that, as people are exposed to the gospel faithfully and consistently, it inevitably has an impact on their lives.
Secondly Paul tells us that in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed. Volumes have been written on that word righteousness, but essentially and put very simply it has to do with right relationships. It is through the gospel that we learn how we come into a right relationship with God. And that, says Paul, is through faith from start to finish. But what I want you to note here is that Paul uses the present tense. He does not say, “In the gospel a righteousness from God has been revealed,” but, “In the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed.” That is, the good news of Jesus is self-authenticating. It is not merely a quaint story from the past. So often to the surprise of those who hear it (and sometimes to the surprise of those who proclaim it) the gospel speaks to us in the present and makes Jesus a reality for us today.
My hope and prayer for you and me at Messiah is that we may grow as a community that has no doubt about the power of the gospel—that as we proclaim it and live it we may know daily the wonderful life-giving presence of Jesus in our midst and never be the same as a result.
Father, I thank you
that in your grace you have brought us together in your service.
I pray that in your mighty power you may move among us
to make us a gospel proclaiming, gospel living community
where your love is known,
where Jesus is reverenced and served
and where your Holy Spirit leaves no life untouched—
for the glory of your great and ineffable name.

15 June 2015

Sermon – “I press on” (Philippians 3:4b-16)

If you take a look along the boulevard in front of the church, you will see four fairly decent-sized boulders. They were dug up this past week during the excavation of Ford Parkway and someone thought that they might make an attractive addition to our garden. I understand that people can pay large sums of money to acquire boulders like that to place on their lawns, but we’re going to get them for free!
In Matthew’s gospel Jesus tells the story of a man who is out tilling a field, when suddenly his plow scrapes against something hard. Thinking it’s a rock, he digs down and what does he find? A treasure! Without wasting any time he rushes off and sells everything he owns so that he can have enough cash to buy the field and claim the treasure. That, says Jesus, is what the kingdom of heaven is like. People say, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” That may be true in the financial world. But Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is worth it.

False Confidence

In many ways what we have in this morning’s Epistle reading from Philippians is a real-life version of Jesus’ parable. It was on his way to Damascus that Paul (then Saul) discovered in Jesus the treasure that made all his worldly advantages seem worthless by comparison—and those advantages were considerable. Paul lists them out for us in the opening verses of this morning’s passage. First of all, he had been circumcised on the eighth day in precise accordance with the Old Testament Law. Once in a while I hear people describe themselves (often with a certain level of pride) as “cradle Episcopalians”. Well, Paul was a cradle Jew, raised from birth in the religion of his ancestors. Secondly Paul describes himself as “a member of the people of Israel”—and not only that, but also a member of the tribe of Benjamin, the tribe from which Israel’s first king, Saul, had arisen and the only one of the twelve tribes that had remained true to Judah when the kingdom had split after Solomon.
Added to that, Paul was “a Hebrew of Hebrews”. That is that, although born in southern Turkey, where people communicated in Greek, Paul spoke the Hebrew language. (What he does not mention in this passage, although he does elsewhere, was that his teacher was none other than Gamaliel, one of the leading rabbis of the first century.) And so Paul could claim not only religious and racial purity, but cultural purity as well.
However, the list does not end there. Paul had also been a Pharisee, a strict adherent to the laws and traditions of Israel. His devotion to Judaism had been such that he had been a sworn enemy of the newly founded sect that claimed Jesus as the Messiah, going to great lengths to hound and persecute its followers. Looking back on it all, he could in complete honesty declare that he had fulfilled all the demands of the Law. It was an impressive list, of which he could be justifiably proud—and no doubt it need not have ended there. Paul was still a young man and his star was still rising.
Now let’s just stop there for a moment and think about what Paul has been saying about himself. Have you ever considered how different Paul’s story is from so many of the testimonies that we hear today? It was not as though Paul had been a hopeless alcoholic unable to wrest himself from the lure of the bottle. He had not been a lawbreaker committed to a life of violence and crime. In every sense he had been a model citizen, successful in everything that he undertook. Yet, says Paul, it was those very things, those good things, that he now counts as loss “for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord”.
In the nrsv Bibles in our pews we read that he “suffered the loss of all things”. I think the New Living Translation gets closer to what Paul meant when it uses the word “discarded”. Paul didn’t have these privileges taken away from him. He threw them away. Indeed, he says, he considers them rubbish. The word in Greek is sk├║bala and the seventeenth-century editors of the King James Bible weren’t afraid to translate it with the much earthier word “dung”. It is like something that some careless dog owner leaves behind that somehow finds its way onto the sole of your shoe. You scrape it off and fling it into the garbage. That was Paul’s attitude towards everything that had once brought any sense of significance, any sense of accomplishment, to his life.

Surpassing Worth

Why was this so? Why the 180° turnaround in Paul’s life? The reason was that, like the man plowing the field, Paul had found a treasure of infinite worth. Like the merchant in search of fine pearls, he had found one that was worth cashing in all that he possessed. What Paul had discovered was that he had been measuring his life by the wrong standard. As Paul had once done, our world puts a great deal of store by the accident of birth. Think of all the attention that has been focused on the birth of Princess Charlotte to Prince William and Kate Middleton over the past few months. Adorable as that little baby may be, what makes her more worthy of interest than any other child? Like Paul, our world is often dazzled by personal achievement. We ooh and ah at great sports champions or movie stars—and in many cases their accomplishments are not insignificant. But does that really make them better than other people?
What changed Paul along the Damascus Road was God’s revelation to him that his value, his personal worth, was measured neither by the circumstances of his birth nor by his personal attainments. Rather, it was measured by the only true measure of human worth, which is the cross of Jesus Christ. And the cross tells us, in letters written in the blood of God’s only Son, that you and I are of infinite worth to the one who created and sustains the universe, to the one who knew us before we were formed in our mother’s wombs, to the one who stands with arms outstretched waiting to welcome us into his eternal joy. That’s what Paul means when he writes about “not having a righteousness of my own…, but one that comes through faith in Jesus Christ”.
Scientists like to talk about paradigm shifts—the one that took place in the sixteenth century, for example, when Nicolaus Copernicus and others began to realize that the sun does not revolve around the earth, but vice versa. Suddenly with that discovery everything began to make sense in a way that it never had before. What the apostle Paul experienced and what he shared with believers who had already gone before him and those ever since, could also be called a paradigm shift. But it was also far more than that. It was something that would not merely affect the way he thought about things. It was not just an intellectual choice, but a conversion, an all-engaging process that would affect every area of his being.
Now it does not always occur in such a dramatic fashion as what happened to Paul. For many of us (including most of the apostles) it happens in a quieter, more gradual way. When did Peter’s conversion happen, for example? Was it when Jesus found him by the seashore and greeted him with the words, “Come, follow me”? Was it when he came to the profound realization that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the living God? Could it have been when he arrived at Jesus’ tomb and found it empty or when after the painful threefold question, “Do you love me?” Jesus invited him again to “Follow me”? Or was it on the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit fell upon him and the other disciples in the upper room? Or might it have been a combination of all these things?
There are some of us looking back on our own lives, who can point to a day or even an hour when that happened. On the other hand I suspect that there are many of us who would find it difficult to pinpoint exactly when the paradigm shift occurred. For those brought up in Christian families there may never have been a time when Jesus was not a reality for you. The point is not when it happened or how it happened, but that somehow we have come to perceive our worth in terms of the cross—in terms not of the world’s values or our whatever values we may set for ourselves, but the value that God himself has placed upon us in Christ.

Pressing On

While we may not be able to point to its beginning in our own lives, what we do know is that what Paul is writing about is the preoccupation of a lifetime. And he goes on to describe what it means for him in the final verses of this morning’s reading. “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal,” he writes, “but I press on…” The word is one of earnestness and striving. Paul will use it once again when he writes to his young friend Timothy:
But as for you, man of God…, pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called… In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus…, I charge you to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ…, the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. (1 Timothy 6:11-15)
“Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on,” says Paul for a second time. “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” What Paul had embarked on, what he was inviting the Philippians to join him in, was an adventure that, if they were willing, would involve their whole being—all their physical energy, all their intellectual capacities, all their courage, their imagination, their moral stamina, their tears and whatever else the Holy Spirit might muster within them.
The Christian journey is not for the lazy or the half-hearted. Yet again, like that treasure in the field, like the pearl of great price, and as Paul had discovered in his own experience, there is nothing that can compare with it. “Ours,” wrote Bishop Handley Moule a century ago, “is the happiness of wondering discovery, and rich possession, and ever-opening prospects.”[1]
It has been my privilege to share in that adventure with you over the past ten and a half years. And I pray for you, as I hope you will for me, that by the grace and power of the Holy Spirit, you will continue to keep moving forward, to keep pressing on, to explore the vastness of its implications, to let it capture more and more of your mind and heart, to live it out amid all the unexpected twists and turns of life, and that you will never cease to be amazed by the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus.

[1]     Philippian Studies, 178

07 June 2015

Sermon – “A Threefold Call” (Philippians 2:1-11)

One of our great institutions in this land is the annual festival of Thanksgiving. Once a year it offers us a day to pause and to render thanks to God for his many blessings to us. The focus of Thanksgiving for the most part is on our material blessings—a home to live in, food on the table, physical health—not to mention those less measurable blessings such family and friends, freedom and peace. In the opening words of the letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul by contrast gives thanks to God “for every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places”. Then he goes on in the verses that follow to enumerate those blessings: being chosen in Christ and adopted as God’s children, redemption and forgiveness by God’s grace, the hope of a glorious inheritance and the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit.
In the verses before us from Philippians 2, Paul calls upon his readers to do the same thing. But he does it in an indirect fashion, at least for us who speak the English language. For he begins each phrase of what he says with the word “if”. For us “if” is a word that expresses doubt. But that is not necessarily the case in Greek. In fact, “if” can mean quite the opposite. It can be an expression of absolute certainty. So let me try to render what I think Paul is really trying to say in the first verse of our passage this morning.
If there is any encouragement in Christ (and most assuredly there is!), if any consolation from love (and most assuredly there is!), if any fellowship in the Spirit (and most assuredly there is!), if any compassion and sympathy (and most assuredly there is!), then make my joy complete…
What Paul is doing is calling the Philippians to look around them and see in the faces of their fellow believers the blessings by which they are surrounded: those who have stood with them when things were going wrong, those who have expressed love in times of loneliness, those who share your most deeply held values and convictions, those who have given their very selves for you at your moments of need. As we look around in that way, we recognize that we owe far more than we could ever give. I find myself humbled by the many ways in which my fellow believers, my brothers and sisters in Christ, have given themselves faithfully, selflessly and unstintingly for me on so many occasions.

The Call to Unity

Well, says Paul, if that is the case (and most assuredly it is!), here is something else I want you to work on: Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. It seems to me that the challenge for the Christian community in Philippi was not that different from the challenges that face any healthy, growing church body. It was that there were great things happening over here, and over here, and over here, but they were happening without any sense of the larger whole. It was what business people today call siloing.
In the business world siloing often goes along with personal kingdom building and departmental turf wars. However, I don’t think that was the case with the believers in Philippi. I suspect that things had simply grown and grown, and nobody had had the time to stop and give consideration to the life and health of the whole body. Yet Paul recognized that if they didn’t take measures to do so, there were all kinds of pitfalls that lay ahead of them.
Paul recognized that for the most part unity doesn’t just happen. It requires intentionality and effort on the part of all. In verse 2 he tells the Philippians what that is going to involve: being of the same mind, having the same love and being in full accord. Now for some of us “being of the same mind” may bring visions of Waco, Texas, and the Branch Davidians or of Jonestown in Guyana thirty years ago. But that kind of groupthink is the farthest thing from Paul’s mind. Remember after all that Paul is the one who exhorts us to stand firm in the liberty in which Christ has set us free. Paul is not looking for mind control (unless we mean minds controlled by the Holy Spirit).
Over my years at Messiah our Vestry has had a number of discussions about what this means when it comes to making decisions. On the one hand there have been those who have argued for complete unanimity. On the other there is our democratic heritage of majority rule. The tragedy is that our human fallenness is able to make either of these into a form of tyranny. What Paul is describing is a common mindset, a commitment to set of shared values that is able to guide our decisions and our common life.
Yet that is only one side of the coin. Aside from being of the same mind, the second thing Paul exhorts the Philippians to is to have the same love. That is to say that the church is bound together not just by a commitment to certain truths, but also by a commitment to one another. Without that love, that mutual caring, we are no different from a stamp club or a historical society. “Love covers a multitude of sins,” says St Peter. And of course the love that both he and Paul are referring to is the love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

The Call to Humility

The second quality to which Paul exhorts the Philippians is humility. “There is nothing so foreign to a Christian soul as arrogance,” proclaimed the great fourth-century preacher and bishop John Chrysostom. “The two impediments to a universal, diffusive, unconditional charity are the exaltation of party and the exaltation of self,” wrote another great preacher and bishop, J.B. Lightfoot, fifteen centuries later.[1]
Like unity, genuine humility is a basic ingredient to Christian community. I like the fact that our English word “humble” has its origins in the word “humus”—earth, soil. It reminds us of our origins, that like Adam God formed us from the dust of the ground. That truth is visibly and tangibly reenacted for us every Ash Wednesday, as the ashes are smeared on our foreheads in the form of a cross and we hear the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.” Before going too far, however, I should make it clear that humility does not mean groveling or indulging in what some call “worm theology”, thinking that I am worth no more to God that a creature that crawls beneath the ground. Quite the opposite: if nothing else, the cross of Jesus proves our infinite worth to a heavenly Father who loves each of us more than we can ever imagine.
Thus, says Paul, true humility involves having a balanced understanding of who we are—what Oxford professor Markus Bockmuehl defines as “an unadorned acknowledgement of one’s own creaturely inadequacies, and entrusting one’s fortunes to God rather than to one’s own abilities or resources”.[2] And that in turn involves leaving aside selfish ambitions and conceit (what Bockmuehl again colorfully describes as “that strangely addictive and debasing cocktail of vanity and public opinion”) on the one hand and esteeming others above ourselves on the other. Once again, that doesn’t mean that we have to be doormats, but that we always have other people’s interests at heart. I like the way Eugene Peterson paraphrases it: “Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead.”
I think I may have told you before about Bishop Russel Brown. With pure white hair and a resonant voice with just the trace of an English accent, he was a man who could not have looked our sounded more like a bishop. One of the roles he took on well into his retirement was as chaplain at a small hospital and it happened that my student assistant was assigned to him for part of his training. I well remember Paul telling me with a look of amazement, of how the two of them had paid a visit to a patient who was too weak even to shave himself. Without hesitating, the bishop rolled up the sleeves of his purple shirt, daubed the man’s face with shaving cream, and began to shave him. It was a lesson in humility that he and I would never forget.
As we sang three weeks ago at Pentecost,
Let holy charity my outward vesture be,
and lowliness become my inner clothing—
true lowliness of heart, which takes the humbler part,
and o’er its own shortcomings weeps with loathing.
In humility esteem others as being higher than yourselves.

The Call to Christlikeness

Paul calls the Philippians—and by extension he calls us—to unity and to humility. But that is only the tip of the iceberg. The real point he has been leading up to all along, the primary challenge that makes the others pale almost into insignificance by comparison, begins in verse 5: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…” More than unity, more than humility, it is the call to Christlikeness.
In his commentary on Philippians Markus Bockmuehl describes these verses as
… a passage which in the twentieth century has been the subject of an uncontainable deluge of scholarly debate, quite possibly more than any other New Testament text. Other passages in the New Testament are of similar poetic grandeur and force; others have been similarly influential in the history of the church; but few if any have over this past century received even a comparable amount of scholarly attention… Fifteen years ago, one well-known monograph on Philippians 2:5-11 and its modern history of interpretation had a bibliography of five hundred items; at least another hundred items could now easily be added.[3]
And he was writing more than fifteen years ago himself! The subjects of these debates are many and include issues such as, “Were these verses really a hymn already familiar to the Philippians?” and, “What did Paul mean when he described Jesus as emptying himself?” But all these questions really are a colossal exercise in missing the point. That is, that if you and I are truly going to be the church, if we are to be the body of Christ in the world, then we need to be like Jesus.
What does that mean? First of all, Jesus did not see equality with God as something to be exploited. Do we hear echoes of Adam and Eve here in the Garden of Eden? They were fooled into thinking that if they ate the forbidden fruit they would become like God. But Jesus chose to divest himself of all his divine prerogatives, to empty himself, not just to share our human frame, but to go all the way to the death for you and for me. “No one has greater love than this,” Jesus told his disciples before he went to the cross, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).
So, says Paul, our calling is, yes, to unity and to humility, but even more to the same self-sacrificial love that Jesus has shown to us. Such love will rarely be recognized by the world. It will not hit the headlines or go viral on YouTube. Apart from the women and John, Jesus died on the cross alone and unrecognized by the world. Yet now he holds the name that is above every other name, the name before which every knee will one day bow. So too, we do not look for fame or any earthly reward, but to be effective in God’s service, to know that we are doing the Father’s will—and finally to hear those words that every child of God longs to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
I’d like to conclude with a well-known prayer from Ignatius of Loyola.
Lord, teach me to serve you as you deserve:
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labor and not to ask for reward,
save that of knowing that I do your will.

[1]     Philippians (ed. Alister McGrath), 122,123
[2]     The Epistle to the Philippians, 110
[3]     Page 115