The GATHERING: Citizen
READ: Philippians 1:27-30
Growing up, I had always hated that phrase “…if you know what’s good for you.” “You’ll eat your broccoli, if you know what’s good for you.” “You’ll lean your room, if you know what’s good for you.” “You’ll do your homework, if you know what’s good for you.” I never liked it because it was a command wrapped in something that’s supposed to be “good for me.” It also came with the implication that if I didn’t do what was good for me, obviously, there’s a binary due: Something bad for me… And so I ate my broccoli, cleaned my room and completed my homework… In much of the same way, this section of Paul’s letter to the Philippians accomplishes the same task. Most scholars would agree that this is what is called a Friendship Letter — not a letter to so much instruct, admonish or exhort; but a letter to check in, to say hello, to keep tabs in a friendly sort of way. But in the verses that we read, 27-30, we hear a friendly warning — an “…if you know what’s good for you…” But a little context first: Paul is writing this letter from a prison cell. We don’t know where — he’s been in prison more than a few times, and has written more than a few letters from each stint. We do know Paul is suffering, tho, as he tells us. The Philippians are gathered to hear this letter, most likely in their church — which would most likely be the biggest house in the community of believers. This isn’t a wealthy community — it comprises mostly farmers. But that’s deceptive: Philippi, which today would be northern Greece, was part of Macedonia, part of the Roman Empire, and situated on the main thoroughfare from the Bosphorus Strait to the Adriatic Sea. In other words, it was an important commercial crossroads in the Roman Empire. So there was much outside influence, and the folks there weren’t simpletons, by any stretch. Philippi seemed to be stretched by those influences and ideas, and for a young Christian community, that posed some problems. Now, the letter comes before the real persecution against Christians began, but there indeed was suffering — as Paul testifies after again being thrown in jail. What is the cause of that suffering Paul talks about? Well, there are two things, it seems. The first is how non-Christians — who compose the majority — are treating the Christians. That means that if you’re a Christian living in Philippi, you are subject to being harassed, you’re considered a social outcast, and business owners may refuse to do business with you. The second suffering is the disputes of how to handle this all within this new church community. Paul is concerned with both. And so Paul seems to present the “…if you know what’s good for you” argument to them. In other words, it seems as if Paul is telling the Philippians to just suck it up, agree with each other and deal with the pain surrounding you because it will one day be better when Jesus returns and/or we get to heaven. Verse 28: “Your faithfulness and courage are a sign of (your enemies’) coming destruction and your salvation, which is from God.”
Control issues? We’ve been sort of trained by the early overly pious, fire-and-brimstone Christians that God’s justice will be our reward. God’s justice over our persecutors and our enemies. And it seems as if Paul is saying that we can take comfort in knowing this. Of course, it also assumes the opposite: That if we don’t do what’s good for us; that is, suffer with the end goal in mind, then we’ll end up along with our enemies. That binary of being a sinner in the hands of an angry God, so you better ear your broccoli, clean your room and do your homework, because punishment is now your motivation. Does that sound like our God? The God who loves us so much, that God would send us Jesus — God’s only Son — to come and die for our sins just so that we could be reunited with God in all of eternity? This proves that God’s love isn’t one of control. Like an abusive father or mother. But one who would go to the ultimate extreme and die for us just for the chance that we would see that love, cherish that love, hold that love, share that love, and love God back. It reminds me of that old saying: If you love something, let it go. If it returns it’s yours. But see, God never let us go. God is always there. But that doesn’t mean God confines us; we are free to decide. When we decide to love God, sometimes we are in contrast to those who don’t. United, we stand In Philippi, we can see the outcome of this. And certainly for Paul. It’s not always an easy road. But Paul gives us this: Not just “One day, there will be justice and you will live in heaven.” That is true; however, it’s this: That we overcome persecution by being united. Right at the beginning of this reading, Paul tells the Philippians to “live together.” That phrase “live together” is drawn from the same noun as the word “citizen.” It’s has a double meaning. The first is the criticism of the Roman Empire, which forced its citizenship on those it invades and takes over. That isn’t love… The second is that Paul is calling the people to known their citizenship in Christ, which is not forced. They are “united in one spirit and one mind,” he tells us. And that together, unified, they will overcome any persecution. Not just with an eye on a future prize in the afterlife; but now, here on earth. Kingdom now, not just kingdom later — and this is one of Paul’s major tenets in his theology.
Cleaning our rooms Today, I actually enjoy broccoli — as long as it’s served al dente. ;) But cleaning my room and doing my homework are still chores to me. And some of the homework I was given in seminary certainly was more suffering than achieving a goal… But it’s necessary, isn’t it? And it makes us stronger — now, not just at some future point. In an extreme, it’s a bit of the foxhole mentality: It’s more about the goal than about the suffering, yes. But it’s when we’re faced with such adversity, that we can either fall apart, or get really creative and succeed. Paul says if you stand together, you will succeed. Because it’s not just you and me, and him and her, and them together; but we’re united in God’s Spirit. That battle has already been won; we simply need to stand united against the oppression. In the Spirit.
Today What does this show us about the way we live today? Well, maybe we should ask the question:
You see, in this light, Paul’s friendly advice is more than just “clean your room and you’ll be rewarded later, isn’t it?” It’s stand together in the Spirit of Love and Compassion and Agreement and Sharing. Stand together in Christ. Because if we don’t, we fall apart. We become selfish and protective and unwilling to share or even be compassionate toward anyone who is even slightly different than us. It should be easy to love those who love us, right? But it is really hard to love someone who hates us. For whatever reason. We pray for those who hate us, or those whom we don’t agree with — not because we’re any better than they are — but because the only way to spread love is to actually share love. To share understanding. To share compassion. Just like our meditation earlier: “May you be happy. May you be well. May you be safe. May you be peaceful and at ease.” A true prayer for not only those who love us, but those who hate us. Or maybe even a true prayer for those whom we hate. If we’re being honest here tonight. Not because we’re better. Not because we want to somehow magically force them to become like us — to make our lives easier somehow. That’s not love. It’s certainly not God’s love. But to simply be love — to be Christ — and let the Spirit of love soften hearts. Create bridges. Begin discussions. And become unified in that love, which is Christ. That’s what a citizen of Christ is. Not for our own needs; but for others’. Even if it means suffering. That’s true love.