Sometimes when we read our Bibles through the filters of our very modern minds, we tend to squirm a little bit. From a very modern perspective, sometimes the things that we read in our Bibles might seem to be a bit off, or a little hinky, or sometimes downright wrong. And I’d be surprised if the opening verse of our passage this morning didn’t trigger just a little bit of a squirm in our minds as I read it. What an arrogant so and so! Who is this fella to tell me to imitate him? Who does he think he is? Hasn’t he got even a shred of humility? My goodness, I would have been much more comfortable if he had had at least indicated that I ought to be imitating Jesus. That kind of advice I could have swallowed much easier. So, Mr. Apostle Paul, here’s where I stop listening to you, at least until you start learning to speak with just a modicum of humility.
And we might be right. In our day, we don’t take kindly to arrogance and pride, and we often dismiss those kinds of folks who exhibit that sort of stuff right away. Most of us have very little tolerance for attitudes like that. But, as one of my favorite writers is fond of saying, the world has moved on.
In some ways, the worlds of the first century and the twenty-first century are very much alike. And that’s mostly because they both involve human beings. And human beings, no matter in which century they live, are very capable of getting up to no good. The sins that we commit today are exactly the same sins that our forebears committed in the first century. We and the devil are not very imaginative when it comes to dreaming up new sins. Basically, it is the human condition to keep committing the same sins over and over and over again with the same miserable results. It does not seem to matter at all in which century we live.
But in some respects, technology not withstanding, there are some pretty profound differences between the first century and the twenty-first century. For one thing, and it just happens to be the thing in our passage this morning; we don’t do the “master” and “disciple” thing anymore. If I got up here one Sunday morning and said, “All right, from this point on, we’ve got new church terminology. I am the master, and you are the disciples. You will no longer call me ‘Wayne’, you will call me ‘Master.'”
Now if I did that, you might be all of a sudden calling me something else, but it wouldn’t be “Master.” And that’s because we bristle at that kind of relationship. That kind of relationship is reserved for the cults, which as we all know are destructive and dangerous. We live today in a much more egalitarian age, and usually, it works quite well for us.
But in the first century the relationship between the master and the disciple was a time-honored, highly esteemed, well respected method of education. It was how wisdom and knowledge and understanding was imparted. It was a privilege for a person to become the disciple of a master. And of course if we need to illustrate that point, we’ve got this guy Jesus who collected himself twelve disciples, and they all called him “Master.”
When this relationship worked well, not only did the master teach the disciples what they needed to know, but there also developed among them a loving and reciprocal relationship. Jesus once went so far in this relationship of love that one day Jesus said to his disciples, “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my father.”* That’s a pretty radical revision of the master/disciple relationship. But, then again, Jesus was known for being quite radical. It’s pretty much what got him killed.
And that loving relationship is very evident in the Apostle Paul’s dealings with the Christians living in Philippi. At the very end of this passage he says, “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.” That’s love. That’s being radical in the master/disciple relationship, and that love is really no more evident or better displayed to the Christians at Philippi, when he tells them that he weeps for them when they mess up. And, just for practicality’s sake, it wouldn’t have done Paul much good to tell the Christians at Philippi, “Go read your Gospels, and be imitators of Jesus Christ,” because none of the Gospels had been written yet.
Well, that takes care of the beginning and ending of this passage. And so let’s take a look at the stuff in the middle. It turns out that the Christians in the church at Philippi weren’t perfect. I suppose that this should not be any sort of surprise to us at all. No church is perfect, nor is any church member.
But within the church at Philippi, there was a group of Christians who had this great and wonderful hope of heaven. And that’s a good thing. We all ought to have this same great and wonderful hope. But as with all good things, there lies within them the potential to be perverted. And here’s what might have happened in the minds of some of the Christians in Philippi. They got to thinking, “I’m heaven bound. I’ve given my life to Jesus Christ, my salvation is secure.” Sounds good, so far, doesn’t it? All of us should know that if we’ve given our lives to Jesus Christ, that we are heaven bound, and that our salvation is secure. But if there’s a loophole to be found, we human beings are going to discover it. And so the next step in this thought process was, “If I’m heaven bound anyway, then I’ll get every bit of joy and life out of this world that I can possibly squeeze out of it.” Still, so far, not so bad in the thought process, God has given us this world as a temporary dwelling place, and all things that bring joy and life are gifts from God, and are to be received with thanksgiving. That’s why, every Sunday, we return a portion of God’s good gifts and blessings in the form of our tithes and offerings. We do this out of gratitude for the way that God has helped us to make our way in the world.
But here’s where the thought process went really wrong and where it got really perverted. And this is how it might have sounded out loud: “If I’m heaven bound, if God has given me this world and the things in it as gifts, then I can do anything that I want with them, and I can behave in any manner that I choose, because in the end, none of it really matters, because I’m going to live forever.” And with that kind of license, some of the Christians in Philippi were engaging in some of the most abominable behaviors imaginable. And they were doing this with what they believed were clear consciences. They really did not believe that they had wandered completely away from the truth. And that’s why the Apostle Paul is so upset and distressed by their behavior. It is hard to tell someone that their rationalizations have taken them far from the truth. But Paul will do it anyway. He says that these folks have become enemies of the cross of Christ. Simply put, Paul is saying that their behaviors have negated everything that Jesus Christ came to this earth to do, and that they are living as if there was no salvation to be had at all. They are living outside of the transforming power of God, thinking all along that it is the cross of Jesus that has given them this license to behave so abominably.
And then Paul gets rather specific. He says their god is the belly, their glory is in their shame, their minds are set on earthly things, and their end is destruction. In their rationalizations, they’ve gotten everything about the Christian faith just backwards and completely up-side down. Last week we watched as the devil tried to turn things upside down and backwards for Jesus. We watched as the devil tried to lead Jesus down a path to destruction, using some very rational thoughts. But last week, Jesus prevailed. In our passage today, the devil has prevailed.
And so Paul works to bring some sanity to the situation. He reminds us that our citizenship is really in heaven, even as we live out our lives on this earth. Paul uses the word “commonwealth” in the Greek, but really, Paul is saying that the Christian church is like a village of heaven planted on the earth to bring the values of heaven to the earth. In our culture, we might better understand that the Christian church is more like an outpost of heaven. It is a place on the earth where the righteousness and the glory of God is clearly displayed for all to see. And while it is certainly a temporary outpost, it must always be a faithful outpost. For from this outpost we await a Savior who will one day come, and who will transform us into the wholeness and glory of all that is heaven and eternity. So, “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and my crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.”