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I have a confession to make at the start of this sermon. At Grace, we’ve been working our way through Paul’s letter verse by verse and I have been mining these words for the nuance and context that brings them to life. But I’ve got to be honest with you all today and this is hard for me to admit, so here it is…there are no interesting Greek words in our reading today.
I know, I’m as disappointed as you are. I’ve been dreading this day ever since we started our journey through the letter to the Philippians and here it is.
And yet, even though we don’t have to translate anything from the Greek there is still an important lesson for us to understand and apply to our lives.
What sets this passage of Philippians apart is Paul’s insistence that the the health, the vitality, the leadership, the mission, the ministry, the worth and value of the Philippian faith community is not Paul and it can never be reducible to Paul. Philippians is a letter of encouragement and support, and Paul knows that this encouragement and support is about more than himself.
Sometimes churches define themselves by a program, they have a mission and a ministry that they are proud of and it shapes everything that they do. Other times churches cling the past and they remember the good ol’ days, while occasionally churches are only looking forward to the future and the dreams and plans that that can’t wait to accomplish, someday. Every now and then, a church even defines themselves by a pastor. Can you imagine defining the morale of your faith by the elocutions of the clergy?
In our reading today, Paul goes out of their way to talk about the interplay of our interpersonal relationships. This passage comes as a reminder of all the ways that our lives intersect with grace and peace. It is Paul’s hope to send Timothy so that Paul can hear about the Philippians. Paul goes on to write about sending Epaphroditus back to the Philippians because Epaphroditus is Paul’s sibling, coworker while also being the Philippians’ representative who served Paul’s needs.
If you’ve been with us from the start of this series on the Philippians, you might remember that Epaphroditus is who the Philippian church sent to bring a gift to Paul. In the Roman prison system, if an inmate didn’t have friends or family to provide for them on the outside, they didn’t get to eat inside the prison. This gift from the Philippians was a tangible and necessary gift because Paul couldn’t have survived without it. And yet, as we read in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, we learn that Epaphroditus was sick, and as the Philippians grieved for Epaphroditus, Epaphroditus grieved for them because they were grieved for Epaphroditus.
Again and again throughout the letter to the Philippians, Paul tells them to have the same mind as Christ, to set their thoughts and feelings and intentions towards grace and peace in all that they do. In earlier passages in Philippians Paul tells them what this looks like when he says, “live in a manner worthy of Christ’s gospel.” (1:27) “Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves.” (2:3) “Do everything without grumbling and arguing…shine like stars in the world” (2:14-15).
Paul keeps insisting that our lives are only fulfilled when we live in a such a way that we look out for and take care of one another instead of only attending to our own self interest.
Shining like a star is when your neighbors car breaks down and you start walking and taking the bus so that your neighbor can drive your car to work.
In our passage today, Paul essentially says to the Philippians, I’m going to send you Timothy and Epaphroditus so that you can have an example of what it looks like to live with the mind of Christ. Paul is reminding us that we don’t simply need examples that sound good in a sermon, our life isn’t merely lived with the encouragement that we get from a letter, Paul is sending the Philippians an example to enflesh grace and peace among them and with them.
We need examples.
One of the reasons why I know my wife Irene is smarter than me is that her undergraduate degree is in math. I was never good at math, especially when numbers started to be substituted with letters. I knew math wasn’t for me when a teacher tried to explain to me imaginary numbers and I got almost every question wrong on a quiz. The teacher did not like it when I said, “I was just being imaginative with my answers.”
The hardest math question I ever had to attempt to answer in school came on a trigonometry. The question was, “Give three examples on how you will use what we’ve learned this semester in real life.”
I am sure that some of you can think of 20 examples, but I could only think of one, “I have to take another semester of this so hopefully what we’ve learned so far will be helpful.”
Sometimes the stories that I tell you aren’t what you would call true, but this is a true story. In high school as we took this trigonometry quiz at the end of the school day, our teacher said to us, as soon as you’re done with the quiz, you can go home and start enjoying your winter break. I was the last person in the room with the teacher, trying to come up with two more examples and I just couldn’t do it. Eventually my teacher walked over and said, “Nate, let me walk through a few examples with you.”
With examples, concepts and ideas that we’re not quite sure of start to click and make sense. All of a sudden, we not wrestling with how to solve a problem, we’re understanding and exploring and growing and learning because the example helps us to know what we can’t figure out without it.
Leroy Barber is the former Executive Director of Mission Year. Mission Year is an organization that works with young adults encourages them to connect with local communities by coming alongside what God is doing by partnering with local churches, organizations, leaders, activists, and neighbors who are transforming their communities. It’s kind a new form of monasticism, where young adults, for a year or more, move into a neighborhood with the sole intention of getting to know and loving their neighbors.
There was a woman that Leroy got to know through Mission Year in Atlanta. This woman stopped going to church when she started working at a hospice home that cared for persons as they died from AIDS. As soon as she started working at the AIDS hospice, people at her church started to treat her differently, because she was associated with ‘those people’. Her faith inspired her to reach out and care for the same people that she was now being condemned for consoling, so she stopped going to church because the Jesus being talked about there didn’t make sense to her any more.
Some folks with Mission Year moved into her neighborhood in west Atlanta. They got to know their neighbors and started to babysit when families couldn’t find childcare. They found out that one of their neighbors was homebound and needed help running errands, so they started running those errands. Just by getting to know and sharing their lives with their neighbors, the whole feeling of the neighborhood started to shift. And, this woman’s new neighbors started to volunteer at the AIDS hospice, because, as they told her, this is where Jesus would be.
A year later, this woman was standing up at a church banquet, celebrating what God had done in their neighborhood, celebrating all of the ways that grace and peace had unfolded around them and she said through her tears “I’m standing here because I’ve been introduced to a Jesus that I don’t know. I’ve never known this kind of Jesus, I’ve never heard of a loving, caring, graceful, peaceful Jesus that walks with AIDS patients in a hospice. I’ve come back to church because I have to learn more about how to live like this Jesus.”
I am guessing that you wouldn’t be with us today at Grace if someone wasn’t this kind of example for you. I think about Dave who volunteered with the youth group I was in during middle school. I don’t have any memories of Dave every giving a sermon to the youth group, he never lead a Bible study, in fact, the most vivid memory I have of Dave is of the night when he let our youth group see how many people could fit into his Geo Metro, it was 23 and it was not comfortable.
There were students in the youth group that had nicer and newer cars than Dave and as we were slowly unfolding ourselves from the contortions we had forced ourselves into to fit 23 people into Dave’s Geo Metro, we started to hassle him about his car, telling him all the reasons why he needs to get a new car. Dave took it all in stride and then told us why he drove a beat up Geo Metro and for Dave it came down to living like Jesus. He said I try to live simply so I can help others simply live. He said I don’t think Jesus cares too much about me having a new car, and I know Jesus cares a lot more about how I use what I’m blessed with to make this world a better place.
Just as Dave was sent to me, just like Timothy and Epaphroditus are sent as examples to the Philippians, we are sent, you are sent, to introduce people to a Jesus that they haven’t yet known.
Affordable housing is an issue in our community and around the world. Fears of evection and foreclosure loom in so many minds because of unemployment, underemployment, rates of rent rising faster than income, not to mention this pandemic that we still find ourselves in. In 2018, emergency shelters in Iowa served over 12,000 persons. Over 70% of the persons in Iowa that experience homelessness, have graduated from high school and either attended some or gradated from college. For one reason or another they find themselves in a state of economic shock. Sometimes we talk about homelessness as if it’s a problem without a solution when the solution is in the first half of the word. Permanent housing programs are more cost effective than shelters and as folks find housing the other chronic issues that can spiral out of control due to homelessness are resolved.
What would it look like if we, like Paul, wrote a letter to the city and wrote, “We believe that everyone can have a home, we know that rent doens’t have to price people out of living well in here, and we know that our community can be better and we’re going to send ________ to be an example to help you.”
If only there was an organization in our area, if there was something like a mid-Iowa organizing strategy that would work to learn what the issues are in the community and then works together to unite the efforts of churches and non-profits to bring about effective and meaningful change. Can you imagine what it would be like if our church was a part of a network of churches that is devoted to making our community better through speaking to power and sharing examples.
This is exactly what AMOS does and that’s why it’s so important that Grace is a part of it.
We live in an era where church, this beloved community of grace and peace, isn’t seen as a beloved community of grace and peace. Too often Christianity has been coopted into ideologies that have nothing to do with Christ. When that happens, Christianity is rejected not because of Jesus, but because the people claiming to represent Jesus are acting nothing like Jesus. As Gandhi once said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
What would it look like if we lived into the example of Jesus. If we wrote a letter to our community just like Paul writes this letter to the Philippians and said, “Jesus is about the abundant life that we can now live with justice and joy and dignity and grace and peace without condemnation, without shame, without bigotry or racism or homophobia and to show you what this looks like we are sending _____ to be an example for you of love and grace and mercy.
There are a lot of letters that we could write. Our prison system isn’t working, rarely do we focus justice on reconciliation and rehabilitation. As followers of Christ, we know that people can grow and change and be transformed by love, we know that the image of God is in all persons and that the God who started a good work in each one of us will be faithful to complete it with us.
Schools and teachers and students are struggling, and not just with how to have class online. We know that every child can learn, we know every child deserves an education that informs and empowers them. Who are we going to send in our community to make sure what we know to be true becomes a reality in our schools?
How are you and I examples? How are you being sent into this world as an example of Christ, showing others what it means to “live in a manner worthy of Christ’s gospel.” (1:27) “Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves.” (2:3) “Do everything without grumbling and arguing…shine like stars in the world” (2:14-15).
As Paul wraps up this section of the text, Paul writes that he hopes the Philippians will welcome Epaphroditus, “with great joy and show great respect for people like him”.
Respect works in a couple ways here, because it can mean to honor and to lift up, to celebrate the example that Epaphroditus has been for the the community. But it can also mean that we respect them, we honor them, by living out the lessons they have taught us. We respect Epaphroditus and everyone like them, every example that has helped to make us the people that we are today, by living it out, by being an example for others.
Examples, worthy of respect and praise, are all around us. We just have to open our hearts to them.
May you, now and always, live as an example, by “liv[ing] in a manner worthy of Christ’s gospel.” (1:27) Doing nothing “for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves.” (2:3) all “…without grumbling and arguing” so that you ”…shine like stars in the world” (2:14-15).
We get to introduce one another to the love and grace and peace and joy and justice of Christ. We are sent by the grace of God to be the grace of God. What greater example could we strive for? What higher honor could we be given?
I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to see you soon so that I may be encouraged by hearing about you. I have no one like him. He is a person who genuinely cares about your well-being. All the others put their own business ahead of Jesus Christ’s business. You know his character, how he labors with me for the gospel like a son works with his father. So he is the one that I hope to send as soon as I find out how things turn out here for me. I trust in the Lord that I also will visit you soon. I think it is also necessary to send Epaphroditus to you. He is my brother, coworker, and fellow soldier; and he is your representative who serves my needs. He misses you all, and he was upset because you heard he was sick. In fact, he was so sick that he nearly died. But God had mercy on him—and not just on him but also on me, because his death would have caused me great sorrow. Therefore, I am sending him immediately so that when you see him again you can be glad and I won’t worry. So welcome him in the Lord with great joy and show great respect for people like him. He risked his life and almost died for the work of Christ, and he did this to make up for the help you couldn’t give me.
Sept. 28 – Oct. 3
Click on the day to expand the guide.
This week in our Guide to Prayer and Study, we’re looking back at Philippians chapter 2 to remember the joy, grace and peace that allows us to be an example like Timothy and Epaphroditus.
Read – Philippians 2:1-4
Notice – Paul didn’t write to the Philippians about unity as an abstract idea. As we will find in chapters 3 and 4, there were tensions and disputes among the Christians in Philippi. Paul urged Jesus’ followers there to find unity in love. That, he said, would make his joy complete. The behaviors Paul encouraged in verses 1 and 2 are good guides for any relationships. Our starting point always needs to be humility, considering others before ourselves as an extension of who we are as Christ followers. We encourage people to have good self-esteem based on understanding who they are in Christ’s love for them. Does thinking of others as better than yourself detract from your self-esteem or self-care? Was Paul asking people to become self-destructive martyrs? What does humility look like when relating to others, notably those you care about? What does humility look like with strangers?
Pray – Eternal God, put me in my proper place. I recognize that you are God and I am not. Based on that, help me to think of others as better than myself as I seek unity and agreement with all your children. Amen.
Read – Philippians 2:5-8
Notice – Philippi was full of retired Roman military men. Ask them who was a great leader and they’d have named Alexander the Great, the Greek leader who conquered nearly all of the known world, or the Roman Emperor Augustus who forcibly ended a civil war in the empire. Yet Paul urged the Philippians to be like Jesus (the Christ = anointed one), a vastly different kind of king. “Instead of using his position to gain things for himself, Christ used it to give to others.” * Verse 7 states that Jesus “emptied himself.” In Greek grammar, the “himself” meant “‘he was glad to…,’ or ‘he was willing to give up all he had.’” “Emptied” didn’t mean Jesus stopped being God (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:18-19). As God, he didn’t have an ego need for any “rank of dignity and glory.” He took “the form of a slave,” and died on a cross. ** Would you admire Jesus more if he’d strutted around jeering, “Do you know who I am?” and seeking applause? Why or why not?
Pray – Jesus, I call you Lord, not despite your humble, serving life and death, but because of it. As I worship you, send your Spirit to grow more of your self-giving love in my heart. Amen.
* Jerry L. Sumney, study note on Philippians 2:6 in The CEB Study Bible. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2013, p. 377 NT.
** Greek insights from I-Jin Loh and Eugene A. Nida, A Handbook on Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. New York: United Bible Societies, 1977, pp. 59-60.
Read – Philippians 2:9-11
Notice – These verses aren’t isolated. They illustrated Paul’s call to “with humility think of others as better than yourselves” (2:3). He was calling the Philippians to live more like Jesus. The “honor” grew out of Jesus’ self-giving on the cross: “This is a God who is known most clearly when he abandons his rights for the sake of the world. Yes, says Paul; and that’s ‘the mind of Christ.’” * Do you shape your picture of God more around “powerful” earthly leaders or around Jesus’ self-giving?
Pray – Jesus, you are “Lord,” the ruler of the entire universe. And that honor is yours because you lived out the divine power of self-giving love. I bow before you in wonder and worship. Amen.
* Wright, N.T., Paul for Everyone, The Prison Letters: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon (The New Testament for Everyone) (p. 104). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
Read – Philippians 2:12-18
Notice – Verses 12-13 were closely related. Verse 12 didn’t mean “save yourself by good deeds,” as some might think. “The word he uses for [“carry out”] is katergazesthai, which always has the idea of bringing to completion….The word Paul uses [in verse 13] is the verb energein….it is always used of the action of God, and it is always used of effective action.” * Even though Paul couldn’t be with them; God still was (cf. Philippians 1:6). When have you had a sense of God’s energy at work in your life? Again, Paul used the Hebrew Scriptures, which he always carried in his head. The idea that if the Philippians lived out their life of faith without arguing they would “shine like stars in the world” came from Daniel 12:3. How can you live a joy-filled life that shines like a star in a world darkened by name-calling and angry words?
Pray – Jesus, I thank you that your divine energy is always at work in me, moving my salvation toward its completion. Make me a beacon of your joy and light to all those who know me. Amen.
* William Barclay, The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians and Thessalonians (Revised Edition). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1975, p.42.
Read – Philippians 2:19-24
Notice – Scholar N. T. Wright wrote, “It is interesting that he doesn’t say ‘Timothy is a wonderful teacher’, or even ‘Timothy is a very devout and holy man’, but, ‘Timothy will genuinely care about you’. The definition Paul seems to be adopting for a good pastor…has more to do with sheer unselfish love.” * It seems Paul would agree with the saying that “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” How have you seen this play out in church, in workplaces, schools and families? Verses 23 and 24 remind us, again, that Paul was in prison, and that he was not certain what the outcome would be. The emotional backdrop of Paul’s fourfold repetition of “glad” in yesterday’s reading (cf. Philippians 2:17-18) was, “I might be set free, or I might be executed.” How can you use Paul’s example to help you deal with uncertain situations (which we all face right now)?
Pray – Jesus, your whole story reflected that God genuinely cares about my well-being. Timothy learned to live out your attitude toward others. Keep growing my capacity to do that, too. Amen.
* Wright, N.T., Paul for Everyone, The Prison Letters: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon (The New Testament for Everyone) (p. 109). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
Read – Philippians 2:25-30
Notice – Timothy got to be famous—two New Testament letters sent to him, his name in the book of Acts 6 times and in 10 of Paul’s letters. Epaphroditus? His name appeared one more time in Philippians, and that was it. But he mattered. “When people were put in prison in Paul’s world, they were not normally given food by their captors; they had to rely on friends helping them.” * When the church in Philippi heard Paul was in prison, they chose Epaphroditus to take something—money? warm blankets? scrolls to read? baked goods? maybe all of these?—to Paul, likely in distant Rome. Not as a quick drop-off, but to stay and serve the apostle—”your representative who serves my needs.” But he got so sick he nearly died, and Paul sent him home, carrying this letter. Paul, that great apostle, was not a solo act. He was part of “the body of Christ” he wrote about, and many members of that body, like Epaphroditus, supported and sustained him. God used the caring Epaphroditus brought to sustain Paul’s joy even in a dreary prison cell. Who has God used to help bring you joy even in painful times? For whom can you be a channel of God’s work in creating new life?
Pray – Jesus, when I’m tempted to feel that I don’t matter, remind me of brave Epaphroditus. He couldn’t have written Philippians, but without him we wouldn’t have this letter. Help me play my role as a faithful member of your body. Amen.
* Wright, N.T., Paul for Everyone, The Prison Letters: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon (The New Testament for Everyone) (p. 84). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.