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For the last time, I want to invite you to open your Bible to Paul’s prison letter to the Philippians. If you are joining us for the first time today, it’s great to have you with us, but you’ve missed a lot. Since June we’ve been exploring this letter and now, six months later, we’re done.
I knew this day would come, and I don’t know about you, but I am keenly aware of my need for Christmas, just ask my wife, Irene. I convinced her that we needed to put our Christmas tree up last weekend and she is a strict wait till after Thanksgiving person, but, our tree is up and the Christmas lights are on, decorations are all over the house. We did come to one compromise and haven’t put up the manger just yet. I know I may be rushing into Christmas a little bit, but, in my defense, when you are doing Christmas planning and recording Christmas music for our Sunday services, it’s really hard to not want to put the decorations up.
This is going to be a Christmas unlike any other, and we’ve all got to remember, this year especially, that the Christmas story is a mess.
Mary and Jospeh are on the edge of divorce, they aren’t sure if they can trust one another or what their relationship will look like in the future, and on top of their relational strife, the Roman Empire calls for a census, so they have to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem. That’s about a 10 day walk in the ancient near east, and it covers around 100 miles all together. There is nothing pregnant people love more than walking unpaved trails in their third trimester. When Mary and Jospeh finally make it to Bethlehem, Jospeh’s family doesn’t have any room in the rest of the house, so the have to sleep in what was the first century equivalent of a garage, and it’s there, without an epidural or a doula that Jesus is born.
It’s not away from the mess, it is not absent from the struggles or the difficulties of our lives, that grace is born, but it is in the mess, in the midst of everything falling apart, that God comes to us with grace and peace.
How could we not seek that hope together this year?
But all that starts next week, for now, let’s bid our farewell to the Philippians.
Paul writes, in Philippians 4, starting in verse 21, “Greet all God’s people in Christ Jesus. The brothers and sisters with me send you their greeting. All God’s people here, especially those in Caesar’s household, send you their greeting. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirits.”
ἅγιον (hagion) is the word that get’s translated as all God’s people. The words ‘God’s people’ works, but ἅγιον (hagion) more directly translates as saints. The root of this Greek word is most commonly translated as holy or sacred.
Paul writes, “Greet all of God’s holy people…”
Greet all of God’s sacred people…
Greet all of the saints in Christ Jesus.
The theologian Karl Barth wrote of Paul’s farewell to the Philippians, “So the letter ends with the same objectivity and superiority with which it began, and in which it is at one both one of the most remarkable evidence of how human a Christian can be and a testimony to an event that can only be designated as the very limit of what is understood by human history.”
I love that sentence, “So the letter ends with the same objectivity and superiority with which it began…”
For Paul, it is not subjective, it is an objective truth, you are holy, you are sacred, you are a saint. Don’t shake off those words or consider yourself unworthy.
In Philippians 1:1, where this all began, Paul writes, “…to all those in Philippi who are ἅγιον (hagion) in Christ Jesus…May the grace and peace from God our [Creator] and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.”
Since that statement in Philippians 1, think about all we have learned about these people that Paul calls ἅγιον (hagion), sacred saints and holy people. We know that they lived with worries and anxieties and fears. We know that there was an uncertainty in the air all around them. We know that as much as Paul and the Philippians wanted to be gathered together in the same place, they were separated and yet still found a way to be united. We know that the Philippians didn’t always get along with one another. Paul goes out of his way to mention without mentioning the elephant in the room by writing, “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to come to an agreement in the Lord.” You don’t have to tell people that are on good terms with one another that they need to come to an agreement. There is some tension, and pain, and frustration, there is misunderstanding and miscommunication in this community, and yet Paul ends the letter just as it began, by calling these wonderfully imperfect people saints, holy and sacred in Christ Jesus.
It is not easy for us to claim this title, even though it’s already ours.
For many of us, seeing ourselves as saints is tricky. It’s like wearing an itchy wool sweater, for a moment we feel the warmth we need but then we start to get uncomfortable.
Saints don’t find themselves in arguments with strangers in the comment section on Facebook. Saints don’t spend their Thanksgiving with grief over everything they have lost. Saints don’t find themselves treading water in a sea of despair and anxiety. Saints don’t have zoom fatigue. Saints aren’t exhausted by the weight of it all…saints are saintly…whatever that means because we tell ourselves it can’t mean anything resembling us.
You can try to shake off your sainthood, but God’s grace can’t help but cling to you.
It is objective. It is settled. It is not up for debate or discussion.
You are loved, you are worthy, you are a saint in Christ Jesus.
It is this objectivity that continually invites us into the superiority of grace and peace.
Again and again and again throughout this letter to the Philippians, Paul points us towards the God that is always extending hand to us. This God is not distant or disinterested, this God is not separated or isolated, this God is on the move, continually giving and receiving grace and peace in an endless, eternal trinitarian community of unity.
You are not here to be a spectator of your own life. We are not tragic guests, we are not wallflowers, we are participants in περιχώρησις preichorisis.
What could be more superior, what hope could be greater, than knowing the love that is God is always reaching out to us to invite us and include us in the fullness of this love, right here, right now, no matter what?
Grace and peace is where this letter began six months ago, and so we have to come full circle to end where we began. It’s not that we’ve been able to get a handle on grace and peace, but grace and peace has a handle on us. We’re captivated and caught up in this grace and peace, and it invites us into a whole new way of being. It’s this φρονέω (phroneó) as Paul says throughout the letter to the Philippians. φρονέω (phroneó) is a pattern of thinking, feeling and living, it’s this attitude, a mindset, a way of viewing ourselves and everything else with grace and peace.
We could fall back into the old patterns of telling ourselves that we aren’t good enough, that we haven’t proven ourselves, that we don’t deserve it, that our sins are so tragic that we could never be reconciled or redeemed, that we’re too damaged, flawed and faulty to ever be capable of change.
We’ve been down that path before, we know what those voices have to say, but through it all grace and peace continues to persist.
We can have a difficult time with grace because it comes to us as a gift, unearned and unexpected, and when we receive grace, when we open ourselves to this gift, we can’t help but be broken open.
There was a woman, we’ll call her Esther, and she was abandoned by her mother as a child. Esther’s mother was an alcoholic that did not hesitate to choose between a family or a bottle.
For decades, Esther vowed to never love her absentee mother. Every now and then there would be news of sobriety, but it was quickly followed by yet another tragedy, followed by another refusal for help.
After not hearing anything for a few years, Esther decided to search for her mother, and when they finally met for the first time since Esther was 9, it was Esther who begged for forgiveness, asking her mother to accept her apology for all the years she did not call or write.
And then, Esther waited to hear those words, “I forgive you” but those words didn’t come. Esther’s mother was silent, unable to offer forgiveness or ask for forgives.
There was only silence.
To that, Esther said, “I love you, I’m okay mommy. My life has turned out okay and I forgive you for everything.”
To that grace, Esther’s mother broke into tears and repeated again and again, “I’m so sorry.”
The grip of guilt can have such a hold on us that we are unable to face it. But grace breaks us open, the love of a daughter overcame the power of shame, because that’s what grace and peace always does.
Grace and peace broke down the barriers between Esther and her mother because grace and peace broke both of their hearts open so that they could create a new story.
In Ephesians, which is the letter to the left of Philippians in the Bible, Paul writes in 1:9-10, “God recalled [God’s] hidden design to us, which is according to [God’s] goodwill and the plan that he intended to accomplish through [God’s] Son. This is what God planned for the climax of all times: to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth.”
The phrase “all things” in Greek is the word pas and it translates into – all things. All things actually, literally, means all things. There’s no trick there.
Paul writes that God is doing something through Christ, something that involves everything, literally all things, and that God is doing this because it is part of God’s goodwill, other translations put it according to God’s pleasure or joy.
God enjoys. God finds pleasure. There is a buoyant happiness at the heart of God because God is love and the movement of this love is what God is up to.
Paul writes to the Ephesians that in Christ, God is going “to bring all things together”. When they write about the climax of all times, about how God is gathering together all things, they uses this word – ἀνακεφαλαιώσασθαι (anakephalaiossathai).
This word only appears in the New Testament once and if you ever play it in Scrabble you automatically win.
The start of this word – ana, means again, and kephale means head, which is to say that ἀνακεφαλαιώσασθαι (anakephalaiossathai) means to bring things together again under one head. Sometimes in the first century, this word was used in math term to describe bringing together the total or sum of an equation.
Occasionally this word is translated as recapitulate, restate, or summarize, but I think a better word is retell.
Because when you think about your life, there is a certain story that you tell. There’s a certain story, seen through a certain lens, and that’s just how this story is. But God says the story can be retold, because the story isn’t over yet.
In this retelling, we don’t remove or ignore any of the nasty bits, we confront those unfortunate events that we would rather to leave out and ignore. As we retell the story of our life through Christ, even those tragedies take on a new light. There’s redemption, there’s reconciliation, there is renewal, there is hope, there is joy. How else would the light of grace and peace shine through a story like that of Esther and her mother?
God is retelling everything.
The world is fractured, broken, and scattered, and yet, it brings God joy and pleasure to put all things, everything, back together in grace and peace through Christ.
God is anakephalaiossathai-ing all things.
Your broken heart is part of all things.
Poverty is part of all things.
Abuse, racism, broken relationships are all part of all things.
Grace and peace is in the midst of all things, inviting us into a new story.
Our time with Paul’s prison letter to the Philippians may be over, but God is not finished with you yet. I am sure of this, the God that began a good work within you, the God that began the good work that is you, will be with you to see it through, no matter what. As we strive to be the ordinary and yet amazing saints that we are, when we, with Paul, proclaim and live out the love and grace and peace and justice and joy that says, Jesus is Lord, when we live with the generosity, the love, the sacrifice, the forgiveness, the mercy and grace of Jesus, we join with God in this great retelling, in this anakephalaiossathai-ing of all things.
God is not finished with you. Your story isn’t over, and even better than that, your story is being retold with love and grace and peace.
The Philippians saw their own story being retold in a small detail at the end of this letter. Paul writes, “All God’s people [the sacred, holy, saints] here, especially those in Caesar’s household, send you their greeting.”
You realize what’s going on here, right? Paul is in Caesar’s prison because Paul refuses to accept the ‘Caesar is Lord’ propaganda that is all around the empire. Paul is in prison for saying Jesus is Lord, for throwing into question all of the abuse and violence of the Roman Empire. And while Paul is in prison, he talks with some of Caesar’s employees about the resurrected Christ, Paul tells them about grace and peace, and these Romans want in.
Imagine what it’s like getting your paycheck from Caesar, belonging to Caesar’s household, but knowing that Jesus is Lord because of the witness and the faith that was shared with you by Paul, who is about to be executed by Caesar because Paul won’t stop saying Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord.
Have you ever been in an ambiguous situation where it wasn’t clear what to do next? You are not alone. Sometimes, even when everything is a little murky and messy, all we can do is trust in, extend to ourselves and to one another, this grace and peace that continually captivates us because Jesus is Lord.
There is this little detail about the saints, the holy and sacred people, ‘especially those in Caesar’s household’ because it’s Paul’s way of saying even though the letter is ending the movement of God is just getting started.
Grace and peace have found their way inside the halls of power, even on death row, grace and peace abound and start to tell a new kind of story.
Where you least expect to find it, grace and peace will meet you there.
When we come to the end, as we read the final words to the Philippians, with grace and peace, we know that this is not an ending but a new beginning. Grace and peace is expanding all around us, retelling the story we too easily tell ourselves and reminding us that we are sacred, holy, beloved, saints.
Grace and peace.
May we know, experience, share, extend, and always find ourselves entering into this unending movement of grace and peace.
Greet all God’s people in Christ Jesus. The brothers and sisters with me send you their greeting. All God’s people here. especially those in Caesars’s household, send you their greeting.The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirits.
Nov. 23 – 28
Click on the day to expand the guide.
Read – Matthew 22:36-40
Notice – Jewish rabbis debated: were all commandments equal or was there a greater one? Asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus chose not one but two. The first was Deuteronomy 6:4: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind.” But he added Leviticus 19:18: “You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Jesus said the point of all other truths is to lead us to love God and neighbor more fully. God wants us to show contagious love to all we know. Jesus said every key Bible principle, all the truths we know about what God wants, “depend” on the two commands he quoted. What do you believe made these two commands so foundational in Jesus’ thinking, teaching, and living? Can you recall any time when some belief you held led you to love God or some of your neighbors less, maybe even without realizing it?
Pray – Gracious God, thank you for loving me unconditionally. Help me to recognize the moments in my life when I can relentlessly love those around me. Amen.
Read – 1 John 4:16-21
Notice – Some people think “righteous” people are not kind, that following Jesus makes you critical and unloving. That was not the apostle John’s view! John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, preached a sermon on April 21, 1777 that quoted John and invited all Christ-followers, “Let us provoke all [people], not to enmity and contention, but to love and good works; always remembering those deep words… ‘God is love; and [those] that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in [them]!’” * Why would John say, “Perfect love drives out fear”? 1 John 4:20 said, “Those who say, ‘I love God’ and hate their brothers or sisters are liars.” Do you agree that it is often fear that leads us to hate other people? Why would hating others block any genuine love for God? Can you think of practical ways to let God’s perfect love move you in the direction of acting in love toward “others,” even if you think they deserve fear and distrust rather than love?
Pray – Jesus, you embodied God’s love for me. Now you call me to embody your love as I deal with other people, even people I may not like, may even fear. Grow your love in my heart. Amen.
* From Wesley’s sermon “On Laying The Foundation Of The New Chapel, Near The City-Road, London” at http://www.godrules.net/library/wsermons/wsermons132.htm.
Read – Ezekiel 34:1-8, 11-12; Luke 15:1-7
Notice – Jesus, God in the flesh, came to this planet on a very real rescue mission. Drawing from the image in Ezekiel 34, he told a story about a shepherd who lost one sheep from his flock. That was only 1% of the flock, but the shepherd cared deeply about any lost sheep. He dropped everything, searched until he found that sheep—and felt great joy when he found it. Jesus’ critics thought he should write off the human “lost sheep” (Luke 15:2), but Jesus, in fact, searched tirelessly for them. “[Ezekiel’s] metaphor goes beyond the normal responsibilities of making sure that the sheep are protected and fed. Instead it focuses on the remedial duties, caring for the sick and finding the lost. These equate to the need for kings to bring about justice for alienated and disenfranchised people.” * What are some of the ways you can actively support and work for justice for alienated or disenfranchised people around you?
Pray – Jesus, thank you that you’ve never seen me (or anyone) as a “disposable asset,” as someone who doesn’t matter. Give me your heart for everyone in your human family. Amen.
*HarperCollins Christian Publishing. NIV, Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, eBook: Bringing to Life the Ancient World of Scripture (Kindle Locations 190424-190426). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
Read –Romans 13:8-10
Notice – Paul sent this letter to Roman house churches (there were no big cathedrals in his day). Some were mainly Jewish; others mostly Gentile. Their standards of “righteousness” varied (cf. Romans 14:1-15:13). It was easy for them to criticize each other. Paul said the purpose of God’s law or rules is to help us love. “Love doesn’t do anything wrong to a neighbor” was a big challenge to people who disagreed. It was (and is) vital, because “Whoever loves another person has fulfilled the Law.” How might ugly religious conflicts (e.g. the Salem witch trials, the Inquisition) have been different if Christians had always aimed to fulfill the law by loving? How can you stand for truths that matter to you without acting in unloving ways toward those who disagree? Ask the Holy Spirit to help you grow in the inner qualities (that may not come naturally) that help you live out the law of love.
Pray – Jesus, “love is what fulfills the Law” sometimes feels too easy to me. Until, that is, I try to do it—then I realize how high and hard a standard that is. Teach me how to love the way that you love. Amen.
Read – Matthew 9:35-38, Luke 19:1-10
Notice – Jesus yearned for God to “send out workers into his harvest field.” To what extent do you think “troubled and helpless…sheep without a shepherd” expresses the spiritual state of your neighbors, co-workers, even some people you know in church? Are you willing to become one of the workers Jesus wished for? What abilities and resources has God given you that you can use to help reach troubled, helpless people with the good news of Jesus? Jesus said he “came to seek and save the lost.” Scholar William Barclay wrote, “In the New Testament ‘lost’ does not mean damned or doomed. It just means in the wrong place….A [person] is lost when [they have] wandered away from God; and [they are] found when once again [they] take [their] rightful place as an obedient child in the…family of [their God].” * In what ways has God “found” you, and given you your rightful place in God’s family? When have you been able to help God find someone else?
Pray – Jesus, thank you for coming “to seek and save the lost,” including me. Guide me to the ways I can join you in doing that great, world-changing work. Amen.
* William Barclay, Daily Study Bible Series: The Gospel of Luke (Revised Edition). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1975, page 257
Read – Colossians 3:12-14, 1 Corinthians 13:4-7
Notice – Paul was emphatically practical in his letters to the Christians in Ephesus and Corinth. He would have grown up reciting the Shema, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5). Jesus, Paul’s Lord, said that was the greatest commandment, and added, “You must love your neighbor as you love yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). The next logical question for Paul, like Christ’s followers ever since, was, “What does it look like to love my neighbor?” These were his answers. It looks like being humble—not thinking of yourself more highly than others. It looks like being gentle—take a deep breath if you feel angry, speak carefully. It looks like being patient—while waiting, focus on God instead of yourself. Love requires compassion (suffering with others), kindness (honor and consideration) and forgiveness to all God’s children. As you read this list of loving actions, how do you feel? Great? Guilty? Condemned? If you’re not perfectly living this list, remember: none of us are. Start with, how can you be more loving this week? Instead of trying to grow in all areas at once, choose one characteristic to focus on in the week to come.
Pray – Jesus, I want to love all my neighbors, everywhere. Help me start close to home and guide me as I expand my vision to be more and more like your vast, world-changing vision. Amen.