Summit Presbyterian Church
February 28, 2010
Setting our Mind on the Right Things
The writer of this letter, the apostle Paul, is famous among Christians and non-Christians, but he has a mixed reputation. The church has always treasured his writings: our understanding of God's grace in the face of our sin owes a lot to Paul. But he also has a reputation for being judgmental and arrogant. For being anti-women, anti-gay, anti-sex. And passages like this one don't help.
So let's admit right away there's much in this reading that's off-putting. Paul begins by telling his brothers and sisters to imitate him, to observe those who live by his example. He's just finished talking about how he's imitating Christ, so he's pointing to Christ as the model. But still, he sounds arrogant -- claiming to do an especially good job of following Jesus. It gets worse when he talks about those he says are living as "enemies of the cross of Christ." Their end is destruction, he says: their god is their belly; their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. He is being judgmental: and he's talking about fellow Christians, not pagans or Jews. We don't know who these "enemies of the cross" were; we can only guess at what they were preaching or doing. We may have rather liked them; certainly, to predict their destruction is harsh. And when Paul uses the phrase "the body of our humiliation" it doesn't sound like he appreciates the flesh. Arrogant, judgmental, anti-body: that's the Paul we don't like.
Of course, there's more to Paul than this passage, but there's more to this passage than appears at first reading. If we stand back and try to put ourselves in the shoes of those who first heard it, I think we'll also discover a word for ourselves. First, some background:
Paul was one of the first apostles, but he never knew Jesus of Nazareth. As he tells us earlier in this letter, he was a devout Jew, educated in Torah - the Bible - and the traditions of Israel. He had heard about those followers of Jesus among his fellow Jews, who claimed that Jesus was the Messiah and had risen from the dead. Paul believed that to be a wrong-headed, even dangerous movement, so he persecuted the church. But then he had some kind of sudden, mystical conversion. Paul doesn't say much about it, but in the Book of Acts, written by Luke, it says Paul was blinded by a light from heaven on the road to Damascus and three days later he was baptized. From there he went out among all kinds of people, Jews and Gentiles, in Jerusalem and beyond. He proclaimed the Gospel and began house churches in many cities, the city of Philippi, in present day Greece, among them. He then wrote letters to these "churches" from afar, greeting people by name, asking for prayers, giving practical advice and theologizing. We think Paul wrote these letters 20 to 30 years after the death of Jesus and that they were read out loud when people gathered. Paul's preaching also got him in trouble with the Roman authorities and he spent time in jail; this letter to the Philippians was written from a prison cell.
These Philippian Christians would have been a small, beleaguered group (I know we sometimes feel like a small and beleaguered group, but they really were!). They didn't have a church building or hymnbooks or stained glass windows, much less endowments or capital funds. They believed the good news of Jesus and the resurrection but they didn't have the gospels or any other writings of the "New Testament": Mark, Matthew, Luke and John weren't even written yet. They had scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, but they weren't sure how to interpret them in the light of Christ; it was a subject of much debate and controversy. To complicate matters, Gentiles, who had worshipped the Greek and Roman gods, were now joining the church. There were divisions, there was conflict. Everyone was trying to figure it out: what did it mean to follow Jesus? What did it mean to imitate Christ?
A lot hinged on the answer. A lot hinged on the answer because people would know Christ through the lives of his followers: they didn't have bibles or tracts to hand out, or a church with community programs that folks could join. A lot hinged on the answer because the early Christian movement was always in danger of collapse: between persecutions and or people falling away the assemblies were struggling, even with all those new converts. A lot hinged on the answer because most of the early disciples believed Jesus would come back in their lifetimes and judge how faithful they had been. A lot hinged on the answer because if they got it wrong, they'd be betraying the one who loved and died for them. A lot hinged on the answer because if got it right, they could save souls and change the world.
So getting it right was a matter of grave importance: for themselves and for the church of Christ. It's true that even in the early days congregations included people with different points of view who accomodated each other -- we see that, also, in Paul's letters. But passions ran high on all sides, so when Paul called those rival Christians "enemies of the cross"- he wouldn't have been considered out of line. Those early disciples believed the cross had friends and enemies, and they weren't afraid to say so. Name-calling was acceptable church behavior, especially if it brought people over to the right side.
Name-calling is still acceptable church behavior in some circles, but more often it's not considered appropriate. Many of us have more of a "live and let live" attitude about Christians who live or believe differently than we do. More humility about whether we know the "Christian" way or whether there even is one Christian way. We've seen 2000 years of church growth, church fighting and institutional survival. We've had 2000 years to see the church make mistakes, sometimes terrible ones, and 2000 years of biblical interpretations we've had to rethink. We may disagree with what other Christians doe or think, but few of us are willing to call them "enemies of the cross" and are uncomfortable when Paul does so.
Which is good. Humility and forbearance are good. Faithful Christians disagree on what is right. But there's a danger: a danger that our humility, our willingness to allow that there are many ways to be a Christian, can veer into indifference. Into an attitude that "anything goes," or that moderation in all things is always preferable. For a lot still hinges on the answer of what it means to follow Christ. How we live our lives does matter. And here is where we need to listen to Paul.
When Paul warns the Philippians about the many who "live as enemies of the cross of Christ," he describes a way of life that sounds uncomfortably like our own. "Their end is destruction, their god is the belly; their glory is in their shame, and their minds are set on earthly things." I wonder if there's every been another culture where people are so obsessed with earthly things: what we will eat and wear, where we will live. What we will put in our home; what we will drive, or do for entertainment. Of course all people and cultures think about these things, but our minds are set on gaining, or buying, things far beyond our needs. It's true that even with too much of most things we don't have enough job or food security, enough health care or good schools for all. But still: in a society where the vast majority of people are Christians, our minds are set on earthly things. Our god is not just the belly, but all that gives us pleasure and status. Lifestyle is our idol. And we're learning that the current American lifestyle is not sustainable. That if we keep it up our end will be destruction - and we'll take other people and creatures down with us.
So let's listen to what Paul says about imitating him, and about imitating Christ to whom he points. We're not going to be able to imitate Christ by leaving the same carbon footprint that Jesus left on this earth -- that time is long gone. But we can follow Jesus in other ways: in his preaching of good news to the poor -- which means preaching, and doing, justice. In his healing ministry, in his feeding of the hungry, in his eating with outcasts. In the way he spoke up for what was right, even at risk to his life. In his generosity - something especially hard for us who like to hold on to our money.
Our situation is very different than those of the Philippian Christians. Rather than being a small, beleaguered movement, Christians, as a whole, are the most powerful people in the world. We have a history that changes how we hear, and should hear, this words of Paul. But we still face that same question: what does it mean to imitate Christ? A lot still hinges on that answer. It's not a matter of anything goes. So let us stand join in imitating Christ and recognize that we may have some repenting to do.
This is not an easy task. So I'll end with some encouraging words from Paul, writing to the Philippians but whose words speak also to us: 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.