Outside of the Gospels, the book of Philippians is my favorite book of the New Testament.
I find Philippians to be a fascinating book. For one, it is a good deal different from the other writings of Paul. If you read Romans, for instance, you will find some heavy-duty theology. Romans can be a tough read, perhaps the most dense and difficult of all of Paul’s writings. It is a theological treatise of the highest order, and not one to be read lightly or in the midst of distraction. Many of Paul’s other letters take on the issues related to his work as a church planter and pastor. The books of first and second Corinthians, for example, were written to a church struggling with many problems, overwhelmed with conflict, and under pressure to maintain its very existence. Penning one of the Bible’s most beautiful passages – I Corinthians 13 – Paul was pouring out his heart to a congregation that was not exactly demonstrating love to one another. In his letters to Timothy, Paul takes on the role of the experienced pastor, offering advice and encouragement to his younger brother in ministry.
When we come to Philippians we find Paul in a much more reflective mood. At the time, Paul was under house arrest in Rome, where he was taken as he appealed a sentence handed down to him by King Agrippa (you can read the story in Acts chapters 25 and 26). Paul was eventually executed in Rome, under order of the Emperor. It becomes obvious, reading through Philippians, that Paul knew his destiny, and that his time in this life was rapidly coming to a conclusion. Such a thought put Paul in a very reflective mood, but also a joyful mood. It might sound contradictory to say that Paul would express joy in such circumstances, but the sense of joy pervades the entire book of Philippians. Some people, in fact, refer to Philippians as the book of joy, and rightfully so, as Paul is able to accomplish that most rare of feats – to find joy in any circumstance, however blessed or challenging those circumstances might be.
Consider, for instance, his words in 4:11-13 – Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. Those are amazing words for someone who knows his own death is imminent.
As Paul reflects upon his life and ministry, he spends time laying out for us what are foundational principles about life, and as such, they offer us a very important guide about how we ought to live our lives.
This Sunday we will consider the passage from chapter two of Philippians that is among the greatest of all of Paul’s writings. They are bold, challenging, and beautiful words, and they are certainly worthy of our consideration.
The turning of another year on our calendars will often put us in a reflective mood, and serves as a good opportunity to consider the matters of life that are the most important.
Philippians 2:1-11 –
1 Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion,
2 make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose.
3 Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves;
4 do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.
5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus,
6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped,
7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.
8 Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
9 For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Perhaps you have had one of those moments of reflection upon life, perhaps in a moment of mortality, one of those moments that really bring life and its meaning and purpose into very clear focus.
I’ve seen a lot of people go through the final moments of life, and staring down your mortality is a very sobering and overwhelming moment. Some do it very well; others, honestly, find it to be a very, very difficult struggle. About eight years ago I had a moment that made me wonder if my mortality was near. I was driving north in I71 one afternoon when a southbound truck suddenly went into the median and came into my lane. The driver of the truck was continuing southbound, while I was northbound, and it appeared that we were on a collision course. In such a moment, we often think we will know exactly what to do, but as the driver of the truck was swerving from side to side, I didn’t know what to do. Because of a guardrail along the interstate I could only move over a few feet and I didn’t know if I should speed up or slow down. Our vehicles passed only inches apart, so closely that I thought our mirrors were going to hit. As he passed by I could see that his eyes were very large with alarm, although mine might have been even larger! He passed by, went back into the median, and than pulled back into the southbound lane, without incident. I have thought about that close call over the years, and wondered how life could have turned out very differently had we collided.
We ought to think seriously about life and how we spend our days. I have lived to an age older than my grandfather and my father-in-law. In less than a year I will have lived longer than my father. Such milestones make me think about life, and I have decided that when all of my life is said and done I want just a few simple things to be said of me. I don’t want to be remembered for having a nice yard or being a good golfer, not that I will be. I want to be remembered as a good husband to Tanya, a good father to Nick and Tyler, and a person who was faithful to God to the end. Anything else is just gravy.
So let’s take just a few minutes and talk about Foundational Principles.
1. Paul wasn’t providing a belief test.
There is not a single word in this passage that in any way provides a test of belief.
Too many churches want to make sure everyone is theologically correct and that your beliefs are all in line with what they think they should be. They want you to dot your i’s and cross your t’s the same way that they do. They want you to believe every jot and tittle that they do. They want your interpretation of every doctrine and every passage of Scripture to be in line with theirs. That is not who we are, as a congregation or as Disciples churches. We are very diverse in terms of our beliefs. We have no creed except to agree that we all confess, as did Peter, that that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.
While Christianity has beliefs, it is not a belief system; it is built upon a relationship – a relationship with God through Jesus. When we make it into a belief system we begin traveling the road towards legalism, which robs faith of its strength and vitality.
Jesus was a harsh critic of what happens when words take precedence over deeds and legalism wins out. There were plenty of people in the time of Jesus who had all the “correct” and “proper” theology but they were not praised by Jesus. In fact, he compared them to whitewashed tombs, broods of vipers, and hypocrites.
2. Paul always pointed beyond himself.
I heard someone say about a minister one time, that guy needs a new sermon; all he ever talks about is Jesus. Paul never recommended that anyone use him as an example of how to live, but always pointed to Jesus.
All of us have role models in life, and that is very important. My parents have been my primary role models, along with others. People such as Bill Norris, a minister at my home church, Bob Mack, who was our church camp director and who preached my ordination sermon, as well as Sunday School teachers and a host of others.
I think there are some marvelous role models out there, but we all of them have their limitations. How do you beat a role model like Jesus, who forgave his enemies, even as they executed him, that can love in a way beyond what anyone has ever seen, and can reach out to people in a way that challenges us beyond any challenge we have ever experienced? You can’t beat that!
Sometimes, as people of faith, we don’t always have the best image, do we? I don’t like that people stereotype and criticize, but when you look across the landscape of faith, there is some justification. I cringe sometimes when people can pick out the fact that I’m a minister, because I worry it might be a bad stereotype. I was in one of the Louisville hospitals some years ago, in one of the surgery waiting rooms, and the person working at the desk asked me you’re a pastor aren’t you? I hesitated for a moment and said, yes, maam, I am. How did she know? And why didn’t she assume I was a doctor? Do I not look smart enough to be a doctor?
The older I get the more I realize I continue to worry about the wrong things in life. I’m worried about what people think about me and if I’m pleasing people, and that’s a dead-end street, I can tell you that. I spend a lot of time worrying about what people think about me and too little time thinking about what people think about Jesus and how they can be like him.
3. Love, which permeates the entire letter of Philippians.
John 13:24 – by this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.
Maybe that’s why people don’t always know we are his disciples. Perhaps our love isn’t always what it should be. But it certainly can be.
Flannery O’Conner wrote about a young girl who loved to visit a convent near her home. When she left she would hug the nuns good-bye, but there was one nun she was hesitant to hug. She didn’t want to hug that nun because she was tall and the girl’s head came right to the large cross the nun wore. When that nun hugged her she would hug her very tightly, and the cross would push into the girl’s face, and it would hurt, and it would always leave a mark.
I like that image, of the cross leaving its mark. The cross, and the love it represents, ought to leave its mark on our lives, and that mark is the mark of love.
May these be foundational principles for our lives, most especially that of love!