Philippians 2:12-13Communion Sunday
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Together, we’ve been doing church differently for about six months, and we’re going to be doing this for quite a few months to come. One of the things that I’ve realized, and maybe something that you’re missing and need to reclaim or create, is a Sunday routine.
I don’t get to go to church very often, I’m usually a part of making church which I love, don’t get me wrong, but it’s different from going to church. Still, I miss sitting in the sanctuary for a few minutes by myself after making a pot of coffee for the 8 am service and enjoying those sips before everything that needs to get done gets done. I’m guess that there’s a Sunday routine, a feeling of going to church, that you need to reclaim or create.
So here’s what I’m proposing, let’s embrace a rhythm to our Sundays. Get dressed up, even if it’s only for yourself. Light some candles. Fall asleep mid sermon. I won’t say who that’s a tradition for, but it’s a tradition for some of you. Start journaling with the services. Do something that will help you reclaim or create a rhythm that make this time something unique. Together, let’s find new ways to embrace this rhythm of our lives and make the connection that we’re share with one another special.
At Grace, we have been learning from Paul’s letter to the Philippians and today we are in chapter 2, verses 12 and 13. If you don’t have a Bible and would like to read along with us, please let me know and we will get you one.
Paul writes, “Therefore, my loved ones, just as you always obey me, not just when I am present but now even more while I am away, carry out your own salvation with fear and trembling. God is the one who enables you both to want and to actually live out his good purposes.”
Our text today begins with ‘Therefore’ which means we’ve got to see where we were to understand where we’re headed.
Just before our passage today, Paul references the Kenosis hymn, it’s one of the first hymns and creeds and liturgies of the Christian faith, “Though [Jesus] was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God highly honored him and gave him a name above all names, so that at the name of Jesus everyone in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the [Creator].”
There is so much goodness in this passage, and if you missed our special guest speaker last week teaching us about this text, you can find that message on facebook, youtube or at gracedesmoines.org
In our reading today, Paul writes that we “carry out [our] own salvation”, which means we, like Christ, do not live our lives out of ἁρπαγμός (harpagmos). That’s the Greek word for exploit or grasp or grab. We don’t try to seize in this life, rather, we empty ourselves, we live in this flow of giving and receiving where we can κένωσις (kénōsis) or empty ourselves so that others might be filled.
Christianity has become pretty cozy with the idea of the cross. The cross has become this symbol self-sacrifice, emptying oneself fully for the sake of others, it’s a symbol of hope and comfort and solidarity, but when Paul writes about the cross in the letter to the Philippians, it was scandalous.
The Roman historian and philosopher Cicero writes, “To bind a Roman citizen is a crime; to fog him is an abomination; to slay him is almost and act of murder; to crucify him is – what? There is no fitting word that can possibly describe so horrible a deed…The very word ‘cross’ should be so far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen, but from his thoughts, his eyes, and his ears.”
The word cross was, essentially, a curse word in the first century. It was such a shameful death that it should be removed from our thoughts, eyes, and ears. I’ve been thinking about it a bit like this, Paul’s letter to the Philippians would have been read aloud to the church and when they got to this point in the letter it would have sounded like Jesus, “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a [beep].
It would have been censored because it’s not a word for polite society. The first people to hear this letter would have thought to themselves, did Paul really just say [beep] at church?
And yet, Paul goes on to write about how even though Christ was a victim of the Roman cross it didn’t victimize Jesus. Jesus was exalted, highly honored, the Greek word here is ὑπερύψωσεν (hyperypsōsen). It sounds like what happens with toddlers when they have too much sugar, but ὑπερύψωσεν (hyperypsōsen) means highly exalted, elevated exceedingly, above all others.
So in these two sentences, Paul goes from the cross, from (beep) to ὑπερύψωσεν (hyperypsōsen), exaltation and glory.
In the ancient near east, the cross was more than a painful way to die. Cross was shorthand for shame, humiliation, dishonor, being brought low and Paul contrast that with ὑπερύψωσεν (hyperypsōsen) exceptionally honored so much so that everyone in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
We can read in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, and think it’s just a nice poetic detail, but lets take a moment to put ourselves in the minds of the folks that would have first read this letter in the ancient near east.
If you study the development and evolution of religions, one of the things that you’ll notice about the ancient word is that most persons lived with the concept of a three tiered universe.
Think about it like this, we know that we need sunlight and rain to make crops grow. The sun is in the sky, rain falls from the sky, this good gift that makes life possible comes from up there, so, in the ancient mind, it’s clear that God is up there too.
While we’re here on the earth, we know that people die and it makes us sad, we grieve their loss, and as people die we put them under the earth and that association with grief and loss and pain and death started to make the idea of being under the earth less and less appealing, something bad must be down there.
On October 24, 1946 a rocket was launched from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico and captured the first image of the earth from space. Since then, over the last 80-ish years, our understanding of the cosmos has changed dramatically and a three tiered view of the universe makes less and less sense because we know that if you travel into space you don’t find people with wings and halos practicing harp music, just like we know that if you dig a hole into the earth you won’t find folks with red cloaks and pitch forks.
Sometimes people have trouble with faith because this sort of mythic language doesn’t make sense with our understanding of the cosmos, and let’s be fair, our understanding of the universe today is vastly different than the three tiered view of the first century. Perhaps, we can have a more generous view of the scriptures and not judge God now by how people understood the universe then.
This passage in Philippians uses three tired language to speak to the reality beyond the reality of our daily life. And in the first century, in the Roman Empire, Caesar ruled the world, Caesar was in control and had the last word on what happen on the earth. Jesus, who was a problem for the empire, was crucified. For the first century readers of this letter, they knew well that if you have a problem saying Caesar is Lord, if you don’t conform to the empire and yield to the control and the final say of Caesar, Caesar has a cross ready for you.
What this text is inspiring us to trust is the hope and the promise that while Caesar might think they have the last word, Caesar assumed that the cross would be the final say for Christ and for us all, but God has the last word, God has the final say, not Caesar.
Every now and then we can find ourselves thinking this is just the way things are. We can find ourselves living in the despair that tells us yesterday was just like the day before that and the day before that and the day before that, so tomorrow will be more of the same. Every now and then we assume that something else has the last word, we feel a cross bearing down on us, and in that moment there is a ὑπερύψωσεν (hyperypsōsen) waiting to be born.
What gets the last word?
Addiction doesn’t get the last word.
Abuse doesn’t get the last word.
Racism doesn’t get the last word.
Unemployment doesn’t get the last word.
Your worries and fears and anxieties don’t get the last word.
There is a word that Paul keeps using throughout the letter to the Philippians, in Greek it’s φρονέω (phroneó), which means mindset, it means to think, or set your mind. Throughout this letter Paul is encouraging us to be the kind of people that, in our everyday lives, endlessly remind ourselves in the face of shame, loss, despair, in the face of everything that feels like a cross, we know the last word hasn’t been spoken because grace and peace will ὑπερύψωσεν (hyperypsōsen), exalted, among us.
Now we know what Paul means when they write, ‘therefore’ in our reading today and since we’re through the introduction, let’s explore what it means when Paul writes, “Therefore, my loved ones, just as you always obey me, not just when I am present but now even more while I am away, carry out your own salvation with fear and trembling. God is the one who enables you both to want to and to actually live out [God’s] good purposes.
Paul is in a Roman jail, writing this letter from thousands of miles away. The Philippians sent Paul a gift while he was in prison, they even sent one of their own to deliver it to Paul because in the Roman prison system, if you didn’t have someone on the outside to pay for your meals, you didn’t eat. The Philippians didn’t let the distance between them and their friend get in the way of staying connected, and they didn’t let the threat of Paul’s sentence keep them apart either. Paul is in jail as an enemy of the state, and the Philippians go out of their way to look like his accomplices.
Paul means what they say as they write, “my loved ones”. Their friendship, their communion with one another, continues to endure and Paul is grateful for the ways that they are continuing to live out their faith, even more so now, because they are separated.
Every now and then you’re reading the Bible and have to ask yourself, what on earth could this possible mean for us today? I mean really, what are we supposed to learn from Paul being thankful for the ways that a church continues to be faithful even though they are separated and can’t come together like they used to?
Anyway, Paul writes that you should, “carry out your salvation with fear and trembling. God is the one that enables you both to want and to actually live out [God’s] good purposes.”
As you might imagine, Biblical scholars have a lot of time on their hands, so there have been libraries written about this sentence because on one hand, Paul writes, “carry out your salvation” and on the other hand, Paul also writes, “God is the one that enables you both to want and to actually live out [God’s] good purposes.”
So who really is at work here?
In the United States, you can tell a lot about the church background of a Biblical scholar based on how they answer that question. If a scholar has more of a background in a Baptist or Presbyterian or Non-denominational church (but let’s be honest, a non-denominational church really just means secret baptist church), those scholars are more likely to focus on the work that God does to enable us both to want and to do God’s purposes. But if the scholar has more of a Methodist or Lutheran or United Church of Christ background, they’ll likely focus more on how we carry out our own salvation with fear and trembling. In the United States there are churches that are primarily concerned with their prayer list and other churches that worry more about their to-do list.
What I found really fascinating this week is that internationally, Biblical scholars don’t really care in this text about who does what. Scholars throughout Africa, the Philippines, Latin America, they aren’t worried about how we carry out our salvation and how God is the one who enables us both to want and do [God’s] good purposes.
Think about it like this, if you ever watch classic Hollywood musicals, especially those from the 1930s, when Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are dancing together, you don’t stop to ask yourself who’s dancing more than the other.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement that we at Grace are a part of put it like this, “First, God works; therefore you can work. Secondly, God works, therefore you must work.”
Because you can work, because you must work, let’s talk about what this work is, but first, let’s remember that when Paul writes, “carry out your own salvation” Paul is not writing to a single person but to an entire church community and the you here isn’t singular but plural.
Paul is essentially writing, “Carry out y’all’s salvation together”.
It’s easy for us to forget that the letters of Paul aren’t personal, but communal. This means that you, as in you, are responsible for carrying out your salvation and it means that we are responsible for carrying out our salvation with and for one another. We are in this holy work together.
As the scholars I-jin Loh and Eugene Nida note, salvation in this passage is at least, in part the, “well-being of their common life together as a community.”
Together, we must care for the well-being of our common life together.
The Greek word for salvation is σωτηρία (sótéria) and it can be translated as welfare, deliverance, preservation, safety, or rescue.
What we have to ask ourselves, now that we’re apart, because we obeyed and lived into this while we were together, is what does it look like to carry our our welfare together? How can we carry our our deliverance together? How can we live into our preservation, safety, and rescue with and for one another?
In the Christian faith, salvation is never reducible to a gift that we receive, it is the life that we share with one another and with God.
That’s what it means to carry out, or as the Greek puts it, κατεργάζομαι (katergazomai) our salvation. It’s a word that means to labor, to achieve, to work towards, to bring about, literally to work down to our end point. As we’ve read this letter to the Philippians, we’ve seen, again and again the end where we all begin, it’s grace and peace.
Our end and our beginning is grace, the absolutely free expression of the Love of God finding it’s only motive in the bounty and benevolence of God.
Our end and our beginning is peace, it’s harmony, tranquility, restoration, and renewal, it’s everything as it should be in a right relationship, every kind of blessing and every kind of good.
Grace and peace is where we are headed, grace and peace is what we are striving for, because grace and peace is what we are living into together.
Paul writes that we should do this with fear and trembling. The phrase ‘fear and trembling’ is used throughout the scriptures and too often it is misinterpreted as the terror we might experience from a horror movie. Fear and trembling in the Bible is less about being scared and more about living with a holy reverence, with an awe and wonder that brings about humility because we get to be a part of this great work together.
It’s with this humility in mind that I need to say a few words about this great work we are doing together and I’m not sure how to say this because I don’t want you to think I’m saying woe is me and please do not hear me saying I’m doing everything alone. Our staff is doing a ton of great work and the only reason you don’t see it is they aren’t live-streaming like I am. We have volunteers that are helping and leading in amazing ways right now and I am grateful for everything they are doing because Grace doesn’t exit without us working out our salvation together.
The struggle with the professionalization of ministry is that there is always more good and necessary work to be done. Pastors and church staff always have another person to visit, another call to make, another class to plan, another meeting to attend, another email to respond to, another idea to bring to life. Beyond that, it’s our role as church staff and my role as your pastor not just to communicate what’s going on in the life of our community, but to over communicate because no matter how many times something is in the Red Doors email, Chimes, Newsletter, posted to facebook and our website, someone’s not going to see it and whenever there’s a gap in our communication, someone or something falls through the cracks and our minds make up a story about what’s going on that may or may not be true.
As a person and as your pastor, I always want to appear as if I have everything held together on my own, competence is the primary driver of my personality and I like to, at the very least, look like I’ve got everything under control, but if I am responsible for holding our church together, Grace will only be as big as the palms of my hands.
The past couple months have felt like juggling on a unicycle and I don’t know how to do either.
What all this means is I need your help.
There are so many ways that we could be in mission and ministry together and if we are going to be in mission and ministry together it can’t be about me. In the life of the church the buck might stop with me, but that doesn’t mean that it has to start with me.
This is why every Sunday when we talk about our offerings and your support of our church I try to remind you that the offerings we give and receive and share with one another during this time come from our prayers, our presence, our gifts and our service to each other and our community.
I am sure that you have hopes and dreams and ideas of ways that our church can continue to support one another and our neighbors near and far during this time. There is so much that we can do together and since none of us have ever been a part of this church during a pandemic before, as long as we take the necessary safety precautions and wear a mask we can’t fail as we reach out with love for our neighbors and our God.
There are more ideas and there is more potential for our church during this season than I have potential for, and that’s ok, because thank God I’m not the church, we are.
What I’m not saying is that at Grace every idea is going to be something that we’re going to jump right into, we’re not going to become an Appalachian snake handling church anytime soon and if you don’t know what that is, have fun googling the rest of the day.
If you have an idea or a passion or a dream that could be a part of our church, here’s what I need you to do, pray about it, and then reach out to a couple of folks to see if they will be a part of this work with you, and then let me know what you want to try and together our church will move forward towards grace and peace as we strive to carry out our salvation together.
I know some of you have great ideas because I get emailed them and I haven’t had the heart to email back, ‘Great, will you take the lead on putting this together?’
There are all sorts of things that we can and should do together, but if we’re going to do them together, church has to be about the ways that we carry out our salvation with one another.
Today we are sharing communion with one another. Even if you don’t have bread and wine, whatever you have for communion is accepted because at Christ’s table you are accepted. At Grace, we recognize that the communion table doens’t belong to us, but to Christ and just as Christ welcomes everyone to the table, so do we.
In some church traditions, communion is called eucharist. Eucharist is actually a Greek word that means good gift or good grace. The Eucharist, the communion that we share with one another and with God is a remind of Christ’s good gift that is given to us all so that we might be a good gift for another. We, like Christ, join in this work of pouring ourselves out so that others and ourselves might be refiled with grace and peace.
We share in this good gift together so that we might share in the good gift of God’s love together as we carry out our salvation remembering that it is God who has empowered us to want to, and to do, good work that God has for us to share with one another.
Therefore, my loved ones, just as you always obey me, not just when I am present but now even more while I am away, carry out your own salvation with fear and trembling. God is the one who enables you both to want and to actually live out his good purposes.
Sept. 7 -12
Click on the day to expand the guide.
Read – Galatians 5:22-23
Notice – Paul uses the image of a healthy, fruitful, tree to convey the kind of people into which God’s Spirit is shaping us to be. Most of us are products of a culture that can tell you strongly that “you get to be whatever you want to be.” For some people, that makes the idea of allowing God’s Spirit to shape you into the kind of person portrayed in today’s reading sound like a bad thing. Do you believe letting the Spirit shape you robs you of your individuality, or guides you into the full humanity God intends you to have? Think through the reasons for your answer. Do you express or act out love, joy, peace and the other fruit of the Spirit in ways that were not characteristic of you in the past? Take a personal inventory of how present each of the “fruit of the Spirit” qualities is in your life. Prayerfully ask the Holy Spirit to help you identify one or two of the areas you most need to grow in.
Pray – Jesus, keep shaping me and making me into the person you want me to be. Thank you for the Spirit’s constant presence to guide and mold me. Amen.
Read – John 3:1-5
Notice – Nicodemus, a Jewish religious leader, “came to Jesus at night.” He praised Jesus’ “miraculous signs.” When Jesus said the vital thing was to be born “anew” or “from above” (the Greek word John used could mean both), Nicodemus seemed stuck on understanding Jesus’ words literally. Being born ‘anew’ or ‘from above’ for Jesus represents a renewal of our lives. Part of human development is moving from concrete thought patterns to abstract/conceptual thinking. Nicodemus had surely developed that yet chose a literal meaning for Jesus’ words. Maybe that was because inherent in being born again is the new way of living that transforms every part of a person’s life. How does following Jesus transform your life? Have you/do you ever resist parts of that transformation?
Pray – Jesus, cleanse my soul with your water which washes away my sin. I invite the Spirit into my life, that I may be born again. In the name of Jesus, Amen.
Read – Luke 9:20-25, Hebrews 12:1-4
Notice – When Peter said Jesus was the promised Messiah, Jesus agreed—but said frankly that being the Christ (“anointed one”) meant suffering, not earthly power. And it meant that for those who chose to follow him, too. In Hebrews 12, the writer used Greek Olympic Game images to urge believers to run the entire race set before them with endurance. The key to Christian spiritual stamina, the letter said, is to fix our eyes on Jesus. In what ways have you had to answer Jesus’ question: “What advantage do people have if they gain the whole world for themselves yet perish or lose their lives?” What choice(s) have you made, or do you face, that promise gain, yet might cost your values, self-respect or honor? In what ways can you gain the strength and self-knowledge to choose rightly?
Pray – Christ, when we serve as you served, and stand firm for God’s principles as you did, it can sometimes feel like suffering. Offering love, forgiveness, grace, and peace to one another doesn’t always come naturally to us, sometimes I even feel like doing the opposite of that. Give me a heart that’s always oriented to your ways, help me to endure, even when under pressure. Amen.
Read – Romans 8:18-25
Notice – Suffering was almost constant in Paul’s life as an apostle. We might think a life like that would embitter him, leaving him defeated and hopeless. Today’s reading showed that wasn’t the case—and it explained why. The apostle came to understand that “the essential quality of hope is that it is oriented to something in the future that one expects but does not yet possess (Rom 8:24–25).”* Paul also knew he was not the only one who suffered. Have you ever felt that life (or God) had singled you out to suffer? It in no way plays down your pain at hard times to remember that you are not alone, that this broken world’s reality is that “creation suffers.” We live in hope that God’s eternal kingdom will end all suffering, but we do not yet possess that.
Pray – Jesus, I don’t like the hard times of physical or emotional suffering—I’m not supposed to. But I’m awfully thankful that even at those times, maybe especially at those times, you are with me every moment. Amen.
* Article “Hope” in Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit and Tremper Longman III, general editors, Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998, p. 399.
Read – Luke 19:1-10
Notice – Jesus defied social prejudices by saying, “Zacchaeus, come down—I must stay in your home today.” He offered this despised man his friendship—he went to the man’s house. Did Zacchaeus have a richer, more “successful” life, at the start of this story, or at its end? You know the answer you’re “supposed” to give. But honestly, how do you define your own “wealth” and “success”? Would you ever even consider adjusting your values as Zacchaeus did when you realize how much Jesus wants to be your friend and Lord?
Pray – Lord, when I seek you, I learn that you have been seeking me as eagerly as you sought Zacchaeus. When I feel “outcast,” remind me that I’m always an “insider” with you. Amen.
Read – Isaiah 56:1-8, 58:6-14
Notice – In the Hebrew Scriptures, the idea of Sabbath is extended beyond rest for us, it becomes an idea for the use of land and even the forgiveness of debt. This may be one reason why Isaiah 56 and 58 link Sabbath with practical steps towards justice like welcoming and helping those that have been pushed to the side. Isaiah 56 challenged the human inclination to shut out people who are, in various ways, not “like us.” How did this passage teach that treating “outsiders” justly is a key part of keeping the Sabbath? The first part of Isaiah 58 showed that some Israelites complained that their pious fasting brought no reward from God. But “the acceptable fast means refraining from taking economic advantage of others, and instead offering assistance necessary for health and dignity…. Self-serving piety is called trampling the Sabbath. Those who honor Sabbaths and holy days do what pleases God on those days.”* How can you avoid “self-serving piety” (on Sabbath or any time), and do what pleases God?
Pray – God of justice and compassion, grow in me a spirit that seeks to truly revere your Sabbath commands by doing the things that please and honor you. Amen.
* Patricia K. Tull, study notes on Isaiah 58:5-7 and 58:13-14 in The CEB Study Bible. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2013, pp. 1190OT.