Sunday, April 28, 2013

Joy in Prison

Philippians 1:12-30

In the last two weeks of our study of Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, we have gotten all the way through the introduction and prayer. Today we will dive into the body of the letter. As we do, remember that Paul didn’t write this letter to right some kind of wrong; he is writing to thank them for their gift and to encourage them during a time of struggle.

When you’re struggling, you’ll find that there are several kinds of people. The first kind really doesn’t care. They are simply self-absorbed. They say, “How are you doing?” and when you start to answer, they wait until you take a breath and interrupt to tell you their own story of woe.

There are the well-meaning people who just don’t have the words to say to encourage you, but they feel like they need to say something anyway. They are the ones who you thought were your friends and then they say something so insensitive that you can’t believe anyone would say it, let alone a Christian friend. You’re suffering from depression and they tell you that your faith just isn’t strong enough. You’ve lost a child and they tell you that God must have needed a little angel more than you did. Your husband died and they tell you, “at least he didn’t suffer” yet you know he did, and now you’re the one who has been suffering and for so long.

The third kind of person obviously cares. This person sits with you and hugs you when words won’t suffice. One thing that sets this person apart is that he or she has been there. Maybe not the exact situation you’re in, but in the midst of struggle nonetheless. Paul is one of this third kind, writing from prison to encourage the church in Philippi.

Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. (Philippians 1:12) When he says this, Paul isn’t just sugar-coating his experience or downplaying the seriousness of what the Philippian church was struggling with. There is a huge difference in a flippant answer and bringing Godly perspective to a situation.

But what do we make of Paul’s joy in the face of suffering? How does he deal with the pain?* There are at least five ways we can explain his joy.

The first explanation is Optimism/Power of Positive Thinking. You probably know someone who is always giving you some kind of pithy one-liner (usually not helpful). They always preach that “things will only get better” but things don’t always. Positive thinking hasn’t yet eradicated cancer or any other illness. While the power of optimism and positive thinking aren’t bad in themselves, in the face of suffering, it’s not really a possible solution, because it involves a heavy dose of denial. Paul really is suffering. The church in Philippi really is suffering. To deny it is unhelpful, to say the least.

A second solution is Hedonism.  Hedonism is the philosophy that argues that pleasure is the only intrinsic good.  The hedonist accepts that pain is bad and thus seeks to maximize pleasure, doing everything possible to stop the pain. Though this seems to be a natural solution, it isn’t what Paul is doing here whatsoever. Otherwise, he could never say, “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain,” and “I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.” (Philippians 1:21, 23-24)

A third option is Stoicism, which is basically “numbing out.” This isn’t exactly denial, but detachment or bravado – I can take whatever they give me. I use this philosophy during the last couple miles of a long run; I tell myself, “I can do anything for two miles.” Again, Paul is anything but detached from the reality of his situation, and this philosophy doesn’t deal with the situation itself.

A fourth option is Fideism, which is very pervasive in our Christian culture. It is expressed this way: “if you are suffering, there must be a lack of faith on your part.” I’ve heard this too many times, and it always makes me sick when I hear someone claim that someone’s illness is just a lack of faith. Especially when the one saying it is wearing glasses or taking medicine for their diabetes. Just because you believe something does not make it reality!

But there is another option, and that is Christian Realism. As a Christian realist, Paul does not deny reality (as he tells the church in Philippi, “I am in prison”), but even in the midst of his unfortunate reality, he acknowledges that there are profound, spiritual lessons to be learned in suffering. While he suffers, he vigilantly prays for deliverance, meaning he doesn’t seek suffering. He thus releases self to joy in suffering.

Paul knows that what has happened to him has only served to advance the Gospel. Francis Chan tells a story of Chinese pastors who were persecuted for pastoring illegal Christian churches. These pastors were ripped from their jobs and families and forced to work for the Chinese government as garbage collectors. That’s a disgusting job, dealing with other people’s trash. But these Chinese pastors had a different point of view; here they were, now being required by the government to go door-to-door! And so the Gospel spread – just like with Paul, who witnessed to the palace guard and everyone else that he was in chains for Christ. (Philippians 1:13-14).

Paul goes on to acknowledge that there are preachers out there with different motivations. It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill.  The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.

There is something to be said for a competitive nature. With all of his sports analogies, especially the one about running in such a way as to get the prize, I know Paul was intense as anyone and competitive as well. Yet when it comes to the Gospel, even dealing with other preachers who were simply trying to one-up him, Paul was ready to rejoice! One thing that makes me sick is rivalries between churches, where a pastor targets people who already attend elsewhere and tries to get them to come to his church. We call that “sheep stealing” and it’s ridiculous. If we would spend our energy and efforts to make new disciples of Jesus Christ instead of stealing old ones, we might make a difference for the Kingdom. There is no reason we should ever have had any kind of rivalry between us and Trinity. In fact, it’s silly that we never merged back in 1968. I never understand towns that have three or four United Methodist Churches within sight distance of one another.

Here’s the thing: there may be different motives, but God is bigger than that. He can use all kinds of things for his glory. I have found myself looking down my nose at some people’s tactics, and honestly, when I do that, I am wrong. If someone is using tracts, unless they are leaving a tract instead of a tip at a restaurant, that’s not what appeals to me, but if God wants to use that, great! And God does! So a few years back I realized that I was picking at certain other preachers or pastors, because I didn’t care for their motives or their methods, but who am I to say that God isn’t in it? And God will use whoever God wants to! And because Christ is being preached, Paul rejoices.

And Paul continues to rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and God’s provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance.

Paul rejoices because knows he can count on their prayers. You know what encourages me? I know that Charles Dozer is praying for me. Probably right now. I know there are people from my last church who are praying for me as well. Paul knows that he can count on the prayers of the church in Philippi, but even more, he knows he can count on God’s provision and the Spirit of Jesus Christ –that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)

This brings Paul joy. Many of us want to be in control and to have some say in our lives; we want to control what goes on in our lives, especially our circumstances, but the reality is that God has a plan and God uses a whole lot of stuff that we don’t have any clue about in order to complete his plan. I’m going to repeat myself here and leave this one for you to chew on. God has a plan and God uses a whole lot of stuff that we don’t have any clue about in order to complete his plan.

So Paul expects God to complete his plan, no matter what. He knows he won’t be ashamed (verse 20) because Jesus will complete his plan through Paul, no matter what. Would you believe that Paul would even accept his own death as part of God’s plan? We are so fixated on this life that we will do everything we can to extend it. Not just that, but to extend the illusion of youth. If you don’t believe that, ask a middle aged woman her age. No, don’t really. You don’t want to get the beat down. We go to every length to keep people alive forever, but Paul says, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21) He recognizes that the better option is to depart and be with Christ (Philippians 1:23). We hold on to this life as if it is all there is. And when we talk about the afterlife, we’re often stuck talking about a miserable boring existence of sitting on a cloud and playing a harp – but Paul understands that being with Christ is better by far – not just better than sitting in a prison cell, not just better than suffering with cancer, not just better than living without your loved one who has already died, not just better than unemployment or underemployment, not just better than fighting with your spouse or ex-spouse or parent, but to be with Christ, face-to-face is better than the best parts of this life.

Because Paul understands this, he eagerly desires it. Understand that he is not depressed or suicidal – he knows that his reward is coming, but not today. Right now, he notes, it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. (Philippians 1:24). Why would he say this? It’s the lead-in for chapter 2, and we’ll get there eventually. But for now, know that Paul isn’t just looking out for himself. He isn’t just thinking about what would be best for Paul. He knows that while he desires to be with Christ, there is still something left for him to do, and others need him.

One of the most depressing things I ever hear from Christians is the sentiment of “I used to (do all these things for the church or for God), but now I let someone else do it. Now, I realize that there are times or seasons of life when you are called to a certain ministry only for a time, and that sometimes volunteering for a ministry in a church can seem like a life sentence – I had a friend who told me that he and his wife actually left their church because they were required to work in the nursery and they couldn’t get out of it. They weren’t opposed to doing their part or to working in their areas of giftedness and passion; they just didn’t feel like the nursery was their area. But they felt stuck and the only way out was to quit the church altogether.

That said, Paul’s example is that as long as he is alive, he has ministry to do. In fact, he believed that the very reason he wasn’t dead was that someone needed him. He is still alive precisely for the purpose of continu[ing] with all of [them] for [their] progress and joy in the faith (Philippians 1:25).  He might say that his purpose in life is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Paul recognized that his goal of getting back to Philippi was so that they would boast in Jesus Christ because of him. Because there are still people who needed him, he was still alive. Turn to someone around you and tell them: “You’re still alive because someone needs you.”  

Hopefully you’re all still alive – if so, you have a job to do.

*The possibilities for dealing joyfully with pain came from a lecture from Dr. Joseph Dongell at Asbury Theological Seminary in his class on Pauline Epistles.

Monday, April 22, 2013

What are YOU Praying for?

Philippians 1:3-11

I’m not really a collector or a saver – moving as often as we do, I know better than to try to save too much stuff. But one thing I do save – this I keep in a drawer in my desk, usually down to the left where it’s easy to access. It is a stack of letters, each of them encouraging. I am so encouraged when I see someone move from being a skeptic to a believer. I am so encouraged when I see someone who is a “pew sitter” become involved in ministry, sharing Jesus with others in real ways. As a pastor, part of the pain of moving is not getting to see the progress continue.

We are in our second week looking at Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, a letter most of us have come to know simply as “Philippians.” The church in Philippi was very special to Paul. It was during Paul’s second missionary journey when he met Timothy and invited him to come along with him. In Acts 16, we read that while they travelled, Paul had a vision in which a man from Macedonia begged him to come and help them. So Paul and his companions, including Timothy, Luke, and Silas, headed to Macedonia. Philippi was their second stop in the region of Macedonia. Acts 16:12 calls Philippi a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia. This was an important city, a city where there was little to no Jewish presence. So Paul and his traveling companions met outside the city gate, down by the river, where some people gathered. This gathering proved to be the beginning of the Philippian church. So Paul had every reason to care deeply for the success of this church.

So when Paul writes to them, he is not just writing to address a problem. He is writing to encourage his friends. After the greeting, Paul continues with his prayer and thanksgiving.

I thank God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

While Paul is writing to encourage the Philippian church, he makes it clear that they inspire and encourage him as well. The Philippians are not merely recipients of Paul’s ministry, but they are true partners in the gospel.

This partnership brings up the question: what is the gospel? Without a doubt, this is the most important question that you’ll ever be asked. What is the gospel?*

When Paul articulated the Gospel, he said, Christ died for our sins, according to the scriptures. (1 Corinthians 15:3). When we say “according to the scriptures,” this is significant, because it affirms that God had a plan. God set it up before it happened. It didn’t happen randomly or by chance; it was completely by God’s design. The Gospel starts out as a plan.

But the Gospel is also an event in history. Christ died for our sins. What happened on Easter is the Gospel. Jesus died for us. There was one actual event where this happened once and for all. The Gospel is also an achievement. Something significant happened when Jesus died for us, something was achieved for us that we could not do on our own, namely that our sins were paid for, that our punishment was cancelled and our guilt was wiped away.

Furthermore the gospel is extended to us in an offer that is free. If the offer isn’t free, then there is no gospel. If we have to work for it or if we have to pay for it, or, even if we can work for it or pay for it, it is not gospel. To add to that, if the gospel doesn’t change the recipient, it’s not gospel, either. We are forgiven and justified – made just as if I haven’t sinned. But this isn’t the whole gospel. We can have all of this – God has a plan, Jesus comes and dies for us, once and for all, and we receive the free offer of reconciliation, we’re forgiven, we escape Hell – but the final conclusion of the gospel is that all of this happens for a reason; it happens so we can have God. My forgiveness is not the goal. Justification is not the goal. Going to Heaven isn’t even the goal of the gospel. The end, the goal, is God Himself.

So the true joy that Paul is experiencing that he is so thankful for in the Philippian church is that they are true partners in the gospel – that they are doing their part to help others get to God. This is a good time to remind you that if you want to call yourself a Christian, you are involved in ministry. Period. There shouldn’t be people who week-in-week-out sit in the pews and get and never give. The word for someone like that is parasite. We are never called to be parasites; we are called to be “partners in the gospel.” If you’re not into that, I would suggest you reconsider what you’re calling yourself. Don’t get me wrong – salvation is free. It doesn’t depend on you or on what you’ve done or how hard you’re working. But if you call yourself a Christian and you’re not willing to share God with others, it makes me question how much you really love God. Jesus even says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 7:21)

Now does this mean that you have to be the evangelism expert? No. But it means that you are doing your part. But guess what – it doesn’t depend on you. Because God’s got your back.  He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. This means that it is God who began the good work in you, and it is God who you can count on to carry it on to completion, and God will not let you down.

As Paul continues with his prayer and thanksgiving, he gives us the first indication of his own situation. It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart; for whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.

When Paul says whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel he’s letting us know what he’s up to. He is in prison. Yet no matter what, he has the Philippian church in his heart – they are a constant encouragement to him.

In every church I’ve been in, there is a small group of people who are an encouragement to me. This week the other pastors in the ministerial association were teasing me about the Community Good Friday service; they joked that everything went well except for the preacher. I told them that the preacher had to deal with three rows of grumps right in the front row. Then I said, “No, really, it was very encouraging to have them up there, tracking with my message, nodding in agreement.” To which one joker said, “Are you sure that was agreement? It looked like nodding off to sleep to me!”

But the reality is that in every church I’ve served, I’ve had a few people who have been so encouraging to me, sometimes by offering response to the sermon – I usually know where I can look in the sanctuary to find that encouragement – but the best encouragement I get is when I see someone growing in Christ. When I see someone stepping out in faith, when I see people gathering together to study the Bible, when I see someone starting to take God’s Word seriously, when I see that spiritual growth that extends past spoon feeding and even after I leave. I am encouraged when people understand that my sermons are more than just me standing up and filling the rest of the church hour, but are designed to make us think about the Bible and about what God might be doing in our lives or where God might be challenging us or sanctifying us. That is what gives me encouragement.

And Paul is encouraged because the church in Philippi shares in God’s grace with him. If you’ve read ahead, you will find the “bookend” to this praise – in Philippians 4:18 and the verses around it, we find that one of Paul’s reasons for writing this letter was to thank the Philippians for the financial gift they sent him. If you know anything about prisons at that time, the prison wasn’t “three hots and a cot;” if you wanted to eat, you had to provide the food. If you ran out of money, you didn’t get fed. And so the gift from Philippi literally meant life to him.

So now we get to Paul’s prayer for the Philippian church: And this is my prayer; that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ – to the glory and praise of God.

Here is the format of his prayer: first we see the “what”: Paul prays for 1. their increasing love; 2. That their increasing love would be accompanied by knowledge and depth of insight; 3. Which would manifest itself in discernment; 4. That they will be filled with righteousness. The “why” is so they may be pure and blameless until Jesus returns. The “how” is that it will come through Jesus Christ, and the end result is that it will bring glory and praise to God.

When I was an associate pastor, our church had a cool partnership with a large African-American church in Columbus. We would do a pulpit switch during the evening, where we would have a combined service at one church or the other, and whoever was not hosting would preach. I never heard our preacher preach better than when he preached there! But when they were hosting, their pastor would get up before the offering and “say a few words.” Who are we kidding – he would preach a 15-20 minute sermon before the offering. Paul seems to be that kind of Apostle – he doesn’t just pray. This guy never wastes a word or a thought; he is always preaching. And you’ll find that every piece of this prayer gets repeated and filled out and explained later through this letter.

Paul sees their love for one another – he doesn’t have to admonish them to love; they already are – and he prays that their love will abound, more and more. This is God’s love he is talking about, not merely affection for one another, not just “we like the people here” but that God’s love will flourish. One reason the church is so important is because God invites into His church all kinds of people. You can probably find someone you don’t like right here in the church! Don’t look at them, they’ll know! But in this environment, you can learn to love.

Along with the ever increasing love, Paul prays that they will experience ever-increasing knowledge and wisdom. This isn’t just about getting more information; our culture gets so much information, like a blue whale eating. While a blue whale is the world’s largest mammal, it eats tiny little krill. The way they eat is to open their mouths, which can open up almost ten feet, and they suck in water. It can apparently take in up to 1100 pounds of food in a gulp. Now, there isn’t a blue whale in the entire ocean that says, “I only like certain krill. Some of them are too chewy or too hard or whatever.” Nope. They just suck them in and eat what gets caught.

Our culture is like that when it comes to information. And I know this because I read it on the internet, so it must be true. So this “knowledge gathering” comes with wisdom, and it’s specifically knowledge of God himself. Not just knowing about God, but knowing God personally, intimately. The reason God wants us to know him intimately is so we can discern what is best. As a Christian, there are things that matter and others do not, and there are good things that distract us from the best thing.

We’ll look in the upcoming weeks at what Paul was getting at for the Philippian church, but here, I wonder, what are some good things that can distract from the best thing? To ask that, we have to know what the best thing is, and to know that, we have to know God intimately. Now do you see what Paul is doing and why he is praying the way he is praying?

The reality is that Paul is praying that the Philippian church will be kept blameless and pure – in the face of struggles and persecution, even – until the day of Christ. That they will be filled with the fruit of righteousness, being in right relationship with God and bearing the fruit that comes from being in that relationship, and all to the glory of God.

This is the ultimate goal of everything; to bring God more praise and more glory. Just as Paul reminded the Philippians that the good work that God began in them was God’s doing and that God would complete it, now he prays for them, that the fruit of righteousness that comes from them loving more and knowing Him more intimately – that it would bring God glory.

This is my prayer for all of us as well. That we may abound in ever increasing love. This won’t happen just by trying harder to love the unlovely, but by allowing God to love them through us. That we may know Jesus more and more in knowledge and wisdom, so we can discern what is best – not just what is good – and so that God will keep us pure and blameless and in right relationship with Him, and that everything we do will bring glory and praise to God!

*The "what is the gospel" section of this message was inspired and adapted slightly from John Piper's message What is the Gospel.

Sunday, April 14, 2013


Philippians 1:1-2
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,
To all of God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons; Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

When I was a senior in high school, I received a strange letter in the mail. Those were the days when mail carriers still brought something other than bills and circulars and announcements that “you are pre-approved” for “our plan to drive you into deeper debt” and other such junk mail.

The thing that made this letter strange was that I recognized the writing on the envelope, but I couldn’t place it. There was no return address, but the writing was so familiar that I just knew I had seen it before.

I just wondered: Who is this letter from?*

When we read Greco-Roman letters, they make this matter a little easier; the writer identifies himself at the outset of the letter. So we know that Paul and Timothy wrote it. Paul was Timothy’s mentor and spiritual father, and Timothy was well known to the church in Philippi. Scholars believe that Paul was the primary author, and Timothy was most likely his secretary.

The most important part of the salutation is what is and isn’t included. In most of Paul’s letters, he includes his qualification as Apostle. However, we find none of that in his letter to the Philippian church. Why not? Because he doesn’t need to include it. You see, in many of Paul’s letters, he is writing to remedy some problem in the church. But he is writing to encourage the church in Philippi during a tough time. He doesn’t need to lean on his qualifications. Instead, he simply notes that this letter comes from Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus.

At this moment we find our first issue. The word that our Bible has translated “servant” is the Greek word douloi. While the translation “servant” is ok, it doesn’t carry the force of its true meaning. The Philippian church would have always seen a doulos as a slave. Here’s the difference: a servant is an employee. A servant has the choice to work or not, and a servant gets paid a wage. But a slave is owned by and subservient to a master.

Does this make you a little bit uncomfortable? It does me. We like to think of ourselves as complete free agents; we are in charge of ourselves and we can do whatever we want. Here’s the thing: if we want, that’s completely true. We can do what we want. However, we talk about accepting Jesus as our Lord and Savior – we recognize the Savior part easily; Jesus saves us from our guilt and sin and from the punishment of that sin. But when we acknowledge Jesus as Lord, we are in effect, positioning ourselves as slaves.

Here’s the deal: we like to have things our way. We like to have choices. We like to believe that we are sovereign, that we are in control of our own lives. Some of us have realized that this control is a mirage, that we really have much less control than we would like to think, but most of the time, we live our lives catering to ourselves. I’m not talking about non-Christians here – I am talking about us. I hear all the time about what people do like and don’t like – without even a thought as to whether God likes it or not.

And then it comes to evangelism. When I say that word, some people start to get uncomfortable. Some of you just might have the spiritual gift of evangelism. I know there are some of you with a passion for evangelism; you are always telling someone the Good News about Jesus. But there are others here who cringe when they hear the word, because you know it means that you’re going to have to go way out of your comfort zone and maybe you’ll get rejected, maybe you’ll get laughed at, maybe it will affect a relationship with a friend or co-worker.

Hear me: a slave does not operate within his or her comfort zone. A slave obeys his or her master. Period. And this is what we are called to do and to be as Christians. Those who automatically obey what God tells us. Sure, we can disobey, but we don’t. Because we, like Paul and Timothy, are called to be slaves of Jesus Christ.

The other part of this slavery is that a slave must rely on his master for everything. The question, then, is: What kind of Master is Jesus? Understand as we go through Philippians that this is the Master to whom every knee will bow and who every tongue will confess, to the glory of God the Father. But we also know this Master as the One who we can depend on in times of trouble. This is the Creator and Sustainer of all life. This is the lover of our souls. He is also the One who went to the cross on our behalf, serving us as no other.

This is the Master who gives everything to His subjects. 

Paul and Timothy are writing this letter as slaves to Jesus Christ, which indicates that they aren’t writing it on their own. Indeed, as Jesus’ slaves, everything they do must be under the authority of their Master, which includes any letter they write. In 2 Corinthians 5:20 and Ephesians 6:20, Paul refers to himself as “Christ’s ambassador” which means he has been given the authority to speak on behalf of Christ. So we should not simply read this as a letter from one early church leader to a church; this is God’s voice speaking.

Before we go on, I want to acknowledge that the spoken word is powerful. God spoke the world into existence, and God, in creating humanity in His own image, gave us powerful voices as well. As Christians, we, too, are called to be Christ’s slaves as well as ambassadors, so when we speak, we speak on behalf of Christ Himself. How are you using your words? Do your words build up or tear down? Do you listen to the Holy Spirit directing you to speak to someone or even when not to speak? You might be the encouragement someone needs today. You might be the only one speaking Truth to someone you love. I have had experiences where someone has been on my mind and I’ll call them or drop them a note or even an e-mail, and they’ll later tell me that they were so discouraged that day and the call or the note was exactly what they needed.

One more thing before we get to the audience of Paul’s letter. As Christ’s slaves, understand that everything we say or do is under scrutiny. We all live in a fishbowl. Know that you will stumble, but that our Master is forgiving. But also know that when we misrepresent Him, we are, in essence, taking God’s Name in vain. That commandment is not just about not saying “God” as a swear word. It’s about misrepresenting Him in the world and giving Him a bad name. So watch what you’re saying, out of respect for His Name.
OK, now that we have that all straight, let’s look the audience of this letter. Paul writes this: To all of God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons;

I like that the NIV translates hagioi as “all of God’s holy people” because it literally means “the holy ones.” Other more literal translations render this: To all the saints in Christ Jesus, who are in Philippi. Unfortunately, the term “saints” has so many connotations that it is completely unhelpful here. When we think of “saints” we mostly think of some outstanding Christians who are holier, more sanctified, more virtuous, and who have maybe even done a miracle. They are the elite, while we are just regular Christians. There is just one problem with this kind of thinking: the Bible does not support it whatsoever.

There are not two classes of Christians. There is no distinction of holiness between clergy and laity either, for that matter. The Bible sees Christians as “God’s holy people” period. God’s people are those who are set apart by the Holy Spirit for God’s purpose in this world – to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. So do you know any saints? They’re sitting around you. Turn to a Christian around you and say, “Hi, saint.”

Much like Christ’s slaves, all of God’s holy people are called to live out God’s character in the world.

Paul addresses all of God’s holy people “together with” the overseers and deacons. I love the wording he uses; there are some leaders who expect to rule a church with an iron fist: my way or the highway. I know some of us have heard the sentiment: “the church has to change and if the people won’t, then the pastor should just change things and we can find new people.” This is not the kind of leadership that Paul is calling for in Philippi. The Philippian Church is led by overseers who take a servant leadership role and by deacons, whose title is a transliteration of the Greek instead of a translation. Transliteration means they just took the Greek word and made it into an English word – if we were to translate it, deacon would be “servant.”

I actually see a lot of servant leadership in this church. When the church council meets, I see people who are actually working. I see many of the same people who are serving in the kitchen for our lunches and dinners and many who work to set up before special events and clean up afterward. I like the policy in our district that anyone working for the district must have their own area of ministry, and I expect that of the leaders in ministry here in the church.

The point is: in the church in Philippi, leadership worked alongside the laity (which is just a fancy church word meaning “the people”). They weren’t two separate classes or categories requiring different letters from Paul. They were one.

So we now get to Paul’s greeting. Now, I’m so familiar with Paul’s standard “grace and peace” that I was going to go off-the-cuff to explain it to you, but I decided to do some research and I found out something new (funny how that happens, isn’t it?!) Where Paul says , “grace” he is taking a traditional Greek greeting, chairein which means “to rejoice” but had come to mean “greetings” (kind of like “howdy” is an abbreviation of “how do you do?” but nobody who says “howdy” expects an answer), and he turns it into charis, which means “grace.” Grace is the unmerited favor of God – meaning there is nothing we can do to somehow deserve it. While our sin deserves death, God’s grace gives us life, and life abundantly.

To this, Paul adds the traditional Jewish “Shalom” which is so much more than just “peace” – it is wholeness and healthiness and prosperity as well. So instead of simply saying, “What’s up?” he greets the Philippian church with grace and shalom.

Paul has this tendency to make everything into a sermon, so even his greeting is one. He isn’t satisfied just to greet the church with “grace and peace” but he needs to include in there the fact that of where this grace and shalom comes from. Grace and peace to you, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Again, Paul and Timothy here have the authority to bring greeting not only from themselves, but from God and Jesus.

But even more, this greeting stands as a reminder that grace and shalom only come from one source. God is the giver of grace, and God is the only one through whom shalom comes. God gives wholeness. God is wholeness. It is only through God that we can be who God made us to be.

Next week we will continue with Paul’s thanksgiving and prayer. Your assignment for next week is to start reading the book of Philippians. Try to read the whole book; it’s not all that long and if you read one chapter per day, you can cover it in less just over half the week. Then concentrate on chapter 1:3-11, where we will be next week.

*By the way, I had written the letter to myself as a part of an assignment in 8th or 9th grade. The teacher compiled them and held them until we were weeks away from graduation and then mailed them out. 

Monday, April 8, 2013

Seeing is Believing

John 20:24-29

Every year around this time, back in Millersport, the local newspaper was always interesting to read. They would go to every length to write an April Fools’ Day cover story that would be both believable and audacious at the same time. One year they wrote a story claiming that Buckeye Lake was being sold and marketed as a party lake with floating bars everywhere and even the possibility of a new “clothing optional” island being built (http://buckeyelakebeacon/news/2009-03-28/front_page/001.html). NBC4 out of Columbus picked up on the story and gave it more credence by doing a live spot on location. Now, if you read the whole article, it got more and more unbelievable, to the point where, at the end of the article, they publicized a town-hall meeting at a non-existent middle school where they were offering “free beer.” Yet there were some who fell for the joke, hook, line, and sinker. “This can’t be true! But I read it in the paper, so it must be true…” Aside from the fact that we are inundated with so much information these days and we as a culture have lost the ability to discern what is good information and what is bad, there are times when we find new information that is just unbelievable, but maybe, could it possibly be true?

My seminary philosophy professor posed the question: what would happen if scientists claimed that they had found Jesus’ bones? Would you still believe the Bible?

You might resist, reasoning that scientists might have made a mistake, that the bones aren’t really Jesus’ bones, that maybe they have a bias against Christianity, so you could choose not to believe them.

But what would happen if Christian scholars, pastors, and leaders, Catholic, Orthodox, Evangelical, United Methodist, even Billy Graham, all agreed that those bones were indeed Jesus’ bones? I know I have been deeply disappointed when Christian pastors, speakers, and writers whose works I have admired have taken less-than-orthodox stands, going as far as denying the existence of Hell or denying main tenets of the Christian faith, but they haven’t shaken my faith. But what would happen if you came to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that those bones were Jesus’, meaning that he hadn’t risen from the grave, would you still be a Christian?

(Just an aside, they won’t find the bones, because he is alive!)Have you ever had a crisis of belief? When you’re sure you believe something, but then you find out that it isn’t true? What would you do in this crisis of belief?

Jesus’ disciples faced a crisis of belief. They seemed to believe in a certain kind of Messiah, one who would be the conquering king who would overthrow Rome and give them back their land and perhaps give them exalted positions of authority. But Jesus didn’t do any of that and, to make matters worse, he was executed on a cross. The disciples had to have struggled deeply. But then he rose again! Or so the rest of the disciples said, but Thomas knew better. Dead people don’t rise again. Jesus was most definitely dead. The Romans didn’t make mistakes, and once you were nailed to a cross, you only had one destination, and that was death. And so Thomas, who has been so vilified as “Doubting” Thomas believes the only thing he can: that Jesus is still dead. But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

Thomas wants proof. He won’t blindly believe. He needs proof. Now, some of you are going back to the Doubting Thomas thing, you’re already scoffing at him in your heads, because you can’t believe he was so dense, that he didn’t believe. But remember that none of the disciples understood or believed; but by the time we get to this passage, they have seen the risen Jesus, while Thomas has not!

I appreciate that Thomas didn’t just blindly believe, but wanted proof. I remember having a conversation with a young man who told me he was agnostic. For those of you unfamiliar with the terminology, an agnostic is one who does not know if there is a God or not. The word “agnostic” comes from the Greek – “gnosis” being the word for knowledge and a” being the negative, kind of like the prefix “un” in English – so it literally means “unknowing.”

We had a conversation about being agnostic, and I put it straight to him (we had the kind of relationship where I could shoot straight and he appreciated it): it’s fine to be agnostic for a season, but if you are not searching and seeking answers, then all you end up is willfully ignorant.

The question is: what we do when we encounter the dilemma of belief versus unbelief? Many of us grew up in the church – in this church, even, and your parents and grandparents raised you, teaching you about the Bible and all about Jesus. I would venture that many of us have experienced a crisis of faith at one point or another. Maybe it was due to an extended period of struggle when you didn’t know what God was doing or even if God was paying attention. Maybe it came during a time of intellectual searching and analysis. Maybe someone hurt you – a Christian brother or sister – and you began to question everything. Perhaps a loved one died and you began to wonder how a good God could let this happen. Maybe you watched a pastor or other church leader fall into sin or leave the ministry or even the faith and you wonder, “if he fell away, what hope is there for me?”

I want to be clear here that these are serious crises of faith. These are real, and there are many who have found themselves affected by stories just like this. Would anyone here be bold enough to admit that you have had a crisis of faith sometime in your life?

There are times when it seems like God is quiet. Notice in today’s scripture that after Thomas expressed his doubt, Jesus didn’t immediately show up. No, it was a week later.

There are times when we cry out to God and God is silent. What do we do with that? Understand that God’s timing is not our timing, and that God may have something planned, that God could be using the timing to teach you to trust in him or to teach you patience or persistence.

In Luke 18, Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. In other words, this guy was not a Jew, nor a believer. And as we read in Psalm 111:10 and Proverbs  9:10 that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, we can deduce that this magistrate wasn’t wise either. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’

“For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’” The literal translation says that he was afraid she would come and give him a black eye! I can picture this little widow coming and smacking the magistrate in the face with her purse, literally giving him a black eye!

And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. This “quickly” might better be translated “suddenly” – not necessarily the “quickly” we are looking for. But the point is this: even an unjust, unwise judge who doesn’t fear God or care about the people will eventually make sure that the widow gets justice, because his reputation rests on it, so how much more will God, who is slow to anger but abounding in steadfast love, bring about justice?

But Jesus’ final word in this parable is this: However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” It’s not that we wear God down with our pleas – but our understanding comes from Isaiah 55:8-9: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

I don’t know why God chooses to wait, or why God gives “yes” answers to some prayers that seem to be right along with his will while others are given “no” answers. But I’m not God and I’m not responsible to be God. What I am called to do is trust him.

But here is the thing: after a time, Jesus actually does appear to Thomas, and when he does, Thomas doesn’t need to go through with the conditions he had set. He no longer feels any need to touch the wounds; he knows it is Jesus. And so he makes the most important declaration in the book of John: “My Lord and my God!” He now understands. He now really knows Jesus’ identity.

I want to bring this back to us. Earlier I mentioned that many of us grew up in the church. Some of us have a very simple faith – which isn’t a bad thing in itself, as Jesus told his followers that to truly enter His Kingdom, we have to have faith like a child – but some of us have an unexamined faith that we haven’t made our own. So how are we going to get the proof like Thomas got? In John 20:29, Jesus told [Thomas], “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Here’s the deal: if Thomas was a product of our culture, he would never have brought the subject up for fear of offending someone. Unless, of course, he was posting it to the internet, where it seems like people feel free to post the nastiest, ugliest, meanest attacks on one another with impunity. He would certainly demand proof. Even if he trusted them, Thomas probably would have told them, “I’m glad that works for you guys.”

But what happens when Jesus shows up? He has no choice but to believe. So here’s what I see as a difficult issue. I believe Jesus isn’t showing up. Before you get upset and start calling the bishop and saying that I’m a heretic, let me explain. I truly believe Jesus shows up all the time but we miss him. Jesus himself said that when two or three believers gather together in His Name, he is with us. (Matthew 18:20). And when he issued the Great Commission, Jesus tells us that he isn’t leaving us alone to do the work of making disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything he has commanded us… he finishes up by telling us: Surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matthew 28:20b)

Jesus is with us when we come together in his name. So I ask: how does someone who doesn’t yet know Jesus see Jesus? How do they encounter Him? They will encounter Jesus when they encounter the people Jesus is with. People who say they can worship outside the church neglect their duty to be Jesus’ hands and feet in the world, to take Christ to the world.

The stark reality is that Jesus isn’t going to show up in bodily form for your friend, your loved one, your neighbor, your co-worker to touch the nail scars. But your friend can still encounter Jesus… through you. Will you be the proof they need?

How can we be proof?

When people see you, do they see Jesus? What will it take for that to be the case? Are you allowing the Holy Spirit to direct you in everything? Are you constantly in the Word? Are you praying? Are you praying about the encounters you will have and the impact they might make for (or against!) Jesus? If you aren’t, you are likely fueling the fire that Christians are a bunch of hypocrites or that if this is what Jesus is like, I don’t want any part of him. We have to be intentional in every aspect of our lives.