March 17, 2019, Lent 2C, Philippians 3:17-4:1
Our second reading today is from the middle of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul had founded the church in the city of Philippi probably about a decade earlier. While many of Paul’s letters to other Christian communities he founded were clearly written to rebuke or correct behavior of the community after he left them, this letter is different. There is no clear slap on the wrist for what Paul sees as the bad behavior of the community. Instead, the letter seems more focused on joy in their shared ministry in the gospel.
Given that Paul writes to the community at Philippi from a prison cell with a capital charge hanging over his head, joy seems like an unusual focus for a letter under such circumstances. However, Paul had a great fondness and love for the Christian community he founded at Philippi and clearly wanted to communicate that. While they weren’t perfect, neither were they as conflict-ridden or in urgent need of an intervention or tutoring in their Christian faith or beliefs as some other communities he founded were.
What it seems they did need was some encouragement and a gentle reminder from their founder and mentor, Paul, on how to live as a Christian community. And what was Paul’s advice to them? While elsewhere Paul speaks of how he models his life on Christ, he doesn’t invite the Philippians to do that here. Instead, he invites them to imitate him and observe the example they have in Paul and his coworkers in the gospel serving among them in his absence.
This might seem strange given Paul’s emphasis on Christ as our example elsewhere. However, I wonder if the switch he makes here is about what follows in his warning about those who live as he says “as enemies of the cross of Christ”? While it isn’t exactly clear to whom he is referring in this comment, some scholars believe that he is referring to those who believe the cross alone isn’t enough for our salvation. Instead, this group believes there is more that we have to do on our own to earn God’s love, grace and forgiveness.
To Paul who preaches of our dependence on Christ alone to be saved from our sins as we see in letter he writes to other communities saying that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ, this would be heresy. For him who says it is only through Christ that he can do anything at all, this would be something he’d need to warn the Philippians about buying into. And what better way to refute those believing otherwise than to point them to the example of those living in a way that shows their belief and trust in the cross of Christ alone as their salvation?
It would seem that Paul’s use of himself as an example was to reveal what it looks like when we as Christians live as a community that relies only on the cross of Christ. In Christ he says we receive our identity, our primary citizenship that transforms us into his presence in the world. We may be citizens of some earthly country, as the Philippians were Roman citizens, but the citizenship that matters most is the one where we are named and claimed as Christ’s own in baptism and where we live in and through him. Paul might have used his Roman citizenship to help gain himself some sort of societal advantage at times, but he knew where his primary allegiance always stood – with Jesus Christ. Because he knew all he needed came from Jesus, he didn’t worry about being imprisoned, tortured, or suffering for his faith, he knew Jesus would provide him all he needed to go through whatever was coming his way.
When we look for people to use as examples of faith we often look to those we think have a perfect faith. Those saints who have given all – even their lives for the faith – like Patrick, whose life we celebrate today. Paul, however, might not be the kind of example of faith we’d choose immediately to imitate. After all, he complains elsewhere in his letters that he does that which he doesn’t want to do and doesn’t do that which he wants to do. In other words, he is a sinner. And he complains of a thorn in his flesh that he just can’t shake, but wants to rid from his life. We don’t know what it is. Is it an illness? A bad habit? An addiction? And annoying coworker in the gospel? Whatever it is, it plagues him for much of his travels in ministry and keeps him from doing all he would like to do as a follower of Christ.
Why then would Paul use himself – imperfect, broken, and sinful as he is – as an example to others in the church? Because that is what we as a community of Christians are – imperfect, broken, and sinful – and fully and completely dependent on Jesus to save us from our imperfections, brokenness, and sins. As Paul says elsewhere, without Christ we can do nothing, but together with him we are transformed to a people who can change the world through God’s love. Connected to one another through him we are more than we are on our own. And bound together in Christ we carry one another beyond our imperfections, brokenness, and sinfulness to reveal Christ’s glory as we live in his love.
What does that look like in community? This week I thought I saw a little glimpse when I read an article in Relevant Magazine from Scott Sauls called, “When Cuss Words, Addiction, and Shame Show Up at Church.” (https://relevantmagazine.com/god/when-cuss-words-addiction-and-shame-show-up-at-church/) In the article he tells the story of a woman named Ann who showed up one Sunday at church. She showed up barely 30 days sober and in recovery from heroin addiction. She told the greeters when she entered that the people at the rehab had told her to “add religion” as religious involvement helps to decrease the chance of relapse and thus Ann found herself in their church that morning in hopes of staying sober. Before heading into worship that day Ann dropped her two sons off at the nursery and after the service returned to pick them up. It was then that Jane, the nursery caretaker that day, told Ann that her two boys had been aggressive with the other children and broke several toys. To which Ann quickly and instinctively yelled, “S**t” in front of several other parents and their children. She then turned bright red and walked “forlorn and broken down” out the church doors, filled with “shame and regret and the familiar feeling of failure.”
It would have been easy for that congregation to forget about Ann and move on, writing it all off as an unfortunate encounter. But that isn’t what happened. Instead, Jane wrote Ann a letter that read something like this:
It’s me, Jane, from the nursery at church on Sunday.
I’m writing first to let you know that all is well at church. No harm done! And the broken toys? No problem! We needed to replace so many of them anyway.
But what I really want to do, Ann, is thank you. Thank you for the way that you wore your heart on your sleeve on Sunday. That meant a lot to me, because I am often tempted to hide the messy things that agitate my heart. Thank you for being willing to be honest. Your courage to be honest got me thinking—what better place to be honest than church?! You reminded me that Jesus invites us all to come to him raw and real—and to do that together and never alone.
I hope to see you again. More than this, I hope we can become friends.
The next Sunday Ann returned to that community of messy and honest Jesus followers and kept returning, growing in faith and in the life of the community until two years later she became the nursery director for the church.
While it would be a great way for the story to end, it isn’t how it ended. Unfortunately, instead several years later the congregation heard that after many years sober Ann relapsed and died of a heroin overdose. While tragic, both Ann’s arrival in the congregation and her contribution to life in it and her death and the congregation’s grief over her death show us that all we can rely on is Jesus Christ. He is our only hope to survive and find life in the midst of a world filled with the messiness of sin and death. For both Ann and the congregation in their flaws and brokenness only Jesus and his grace saved them in life and in death, bringing them wholeness, healing, forgiveness and new life they couldn’t find on their own. Because as Ravi Zacharias was quoted as saying in the article, “Jesus did not come to make bad people good or to make good people better, but to make dead people alive.”
We who are broken, flawed, and sinful are dead and Jesus alone can make us alive again. As we are promised in baptism, buried with Christ in a death like his, so too are we raised with him in a resurrection like his. Then brought together in our imperfection and brokenness as one body in Christ, we witness to the power of that new life as we share honestly about our flaws in the messiness of life and community gathered around Christ.
This isn’t easy as we heard in the story of Jane, Ann, and their congregation and as we know from looking around at the brokenness of this world where in our sin we find new ways to hate and hurt each other all the time. This community of Christ the King-Epiphany has also discovered this in merging two separate congregations – Episcopal and Lutheran – together into one. It has been hard as this community has faced changes in worship location, building issues, worship space configurations, the moving and relocation of building decorations and fixtures, changes in orders of worship, music, favorite traditions and practices, and turnover of members of the community. Yet, as we continue to move closer to a final merger and a permanent commitment to life together, we recognize that it hasn’t happened through our efforts alone. It has happened only through Jesus Christ working in and through us as a community. In and through this community of flawed, broken, grieving, frustrated, angry, and hurting sinners. And yet through the messiness of our coming together as one community in him, Jesus has been and still is constantly transforming and conforming us to be his body in this world and has and is bringing us from death to new life.
As Paul encourages the community at Philippi to not give up though it might seem as if they could do things better all on their own, so too he invites us not to give up. Instead, he commends them and us to the hope of life together in Christ. Only standing firm in Christ can they and we make it. Only made alive together in Christ can we find new life in the midst of so much brokenness and death in this world. Only in life together as one in Christ can we discover the true joy and fulfillment as the citizens of heaven he has made us to be. Amen.