Second Sunday in Lent
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 little bit off, or not quite right, or maybe even 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 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”. And unfortunately, that is rather true.
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 are 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 any more. 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 might not even be Wayne. It would probably be something else entirely. 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 relationship and of education. It was how wisdom and knowledge and understanding was imparted. It was a privilege for one 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 up 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 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 believers 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 followers of Jesus at Philippi, than when Paul tells them that he weeps for them when they mess up. And, just so that we all remember this, it wouldn’t have done Paul any good to tell his readers to immerse themselves in the four Gospels, and to be imitators of Christ, because none of the Gospels had yet been written. They don’t exist. Nobody could read them.
Well, that takes care of the beginning and the ending of this passage. And so let’s take a look at the stuff in the middle. It turns out that the believers 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, because churches are necessarily made up of human beings.
And within the church at Philippi, there were some folks who were fixated on heaven. And mostly, that’s a good thing. We all ought to have this great and wonderful hope of heaven. But as with all good things, perversion can sneak into them. And that’s not good. And here’s what might have happened in the minds of some of the followers of Jesus 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 squeeze 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, and with joy. 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, really wrong and where it got really, 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 believers 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 so distressed by their behavior. It is very 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 that 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 have gotten everything just backwards and completely upside down. Just last Sunday, we watched as the devil tried to turn things all upside down and backwards for Jesus. We watched as the devil unsuccessfully tried to seduce Jesus, and to lead him down a path that led only to destruction, using some very rational enticements. But, thanks be to God, Jesus stood firm. In our passage today, though the devil has gained, at least, a temporary victory.
And so Paul works to bring some sanity to the situation. He reminds us that our citizenship really and truly is in heaven, even, and especially as we struggle to live out our lives on this broken earth. In Greek, Paul actually says that heaven is our “commonwealth.” And I think that is grand, particularly in light of the terrifying humanitarian crisis that our world is now enduring. And so if our commonwealth is heaven, what is the church, then? The church is an outpost of heaven, planted on the earth, to bring the values of heaven to the earth. The church is a place on earth, established and empowered by heaven, where the righteousness and the glory of God is clearly displayed for all to see. And while it is certainly a temporary out- post, it must always be a faithful outpost. Far from this outpost we await a savior who will one day come again, 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.”
* John 15:15