“First United Church of Philippi, part III”
Rev. Tony Romaine—October 25th, 2020
As we continue our four-part series going through Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, let us be reminded that Paul wrote to the Philippians, and to our modern-day church, with a two-part, over-arching framework in mind; that we should be focusing on what truly matters the most and that we must be active Christian citizens. With this in mind, the tone of Paul’s letters so far have been fairly cordial and muted, with greetings, extensions of thanks, and directions for focus and purpose.
However, with this third chapter, Paul’s tone changes quite a bit. From what we can gather, there must have been some opponents of Paul’s church in Philippi or even division from within that were causing trouble and Paul needed to make sure this was addressed. The extent of the beginning of this third chapter thus deals with speaking out against false teachers and those who “mutilate” the flesh, i.e. circumcision, but do not actually follow the Spirit of God. Those who see circumcision as just another physical determination whether someone is holy or not, and so perform this ritual, yet do not actually follow the faith of Christ Jesus. As we hear Paul arguing that “confidence in the flesh” is not what matters, but that the Philippians have received the spiritual marks they need through worshipping in the Spirit of God and boasting in Christ Jesus.
Paul then goes on this diatribe that may seem self-serving, but is actually a verbose way of him trying to tell the Philippian church, and all of us, that if anyone were to be boastful and be someone who should know about how to keep holiness laws and rituals, it would be him. For he was once a Jew who brought gentiles or Judeo-Christians to be prosecuted and sometimes executed in the Sanhedrin or the Jewish court. Paul, when he was Saul, was an upright and holy Jew who followed all of the “righteous” ways of living and was “righteous under the law.”
And yet, when he was on the road to Damascus and Jesus appeared and blinded him and converted him right then and there to become one of the most important followers of Christ our world has ever known, Paul knew that at that moment everything leading up to that point was a loss. For everything before this point was a mirage. It was as if he was living a false life, it was as if he was following only the laws of the world and of the flesh and not truly listening or following the laws of the Spirit or the laws of God; who, if we truly listen, is calling us to more than the designations of what our flesh can demonstrate, calling us to be more than what we can say about one another, calling us to worship in ways which are beyond our human understanding, and calling us into being so much more than our current way, shape, or form. Calling us to truly focus on what matters most.
This is why Paul counts all of his pre-Jesus experience as loss, because the person he is now, is not just a person of the flesh, but one who has been saved by Christ and thus should live into this faith. Whereas, the person he was before was only concerned about how to separate and delineate, not bring together, call together, and live by faith. In this manner, Paul had to die to his old self, just as Christ died upon the Cross, in order to be brought into the new life which is the salvation Jesus gave to Paul and is the death that Paul talks about joining in which provides for a resurrection upon his death.
Paul reminds us that this goal of perfection and resurrection, which he freely admits he has not yet attained, will indeed not be accomplished until the day we die. This does not mean we do not pursue it; rather, we should be working and striving toward that perfection like an athlete, not living in the past which has faded away and we can never relive, but striving toward the future and the “heavenly calling in Christ Jesus.”
This “heavenly,” or “prize of the calling from above,” in the Greek, is such wonderful language, because once again we are being given this higher designation than the place where we currently stand. That Jesus is calling us upward, or maybe forward would be even better, to look beyond our past and current circumstances into a future which cannot yet be seen or experienced, but is one filled with a promise yet to come. This is something that Paul longs for the Philippians to be focused on, not the wayward teachings of the evildoers among them who instead seek to turn their attention to the earthly laws and rituals which will detract from the goal of unity and perfection.
This leads into one of the most important points of this short chapter and again one of Paul’s over-arching principles for the church: the idea of Christian citizenship. It sometimes seems like Paul is being egotistical when he writes to the Philippians and commends them for acting like him or exhorts them to act like him. And while I can understand the obvious ego in these statements, what Paul is actually doing is calling a young church to follow his example of Christian citizenship. He is not saying, “Worship me,” he is saying, “Live like me, be a Christian like me,” “Follow Jesus like I have.” For if you do, that will mean that you oppose the enemies of the cross, you oppose those who would seek to leave people out of the church based on their dietary laws, their ability to be holy, or their pasts which do not dictate their futures.
It would mean that you would count as loss the laws which seek to keep people from truly experiencing the unity and love of Christ and that you would oppose those who seek only to satisfy their flesh and not live into the Holy Spirit. And if we follow where Paul is leading us, it will mean that we are Christian Citizens whose residence is heaven. Let me say that again because it means so much in our current day and age: Our citizenship is in heaven; we are Christian citizens of heaven! This exposes an important tangent implicit in this chapter that we need to explain and make clear:
It is not popular to say that our country does not matter or our city does not matter or our state does not matter; and in fact, I would argue that Paul is asking us to be active parts of all of those areas. But, if our duty to any entity whatsoever gets in the way of our ability to love as Christ loved us, if our worship ever becomes more focused on an earthly idol, person, or country and that prevents us from being able to welcome our brothers and sisters in unity, to live as Christian citizens of heaven and truly know what matters most in our lives; then that entity, person, or state is of the “evildoers.”
It may not be popular or easy, but the righteous way of living is to be in line with, and have faith in, Our Savior who takes all of the humbleness of our humanity and transforms it, the Greek word that Paul uses here in verse twenty-one actually means “will transform,” meaning that our bodies change and mold into Jesus’ through his sacrifice; so that our humbleness is glorified and made perfect through him. But to do this means we must think differently, act differently, and be different citizens than what some in our world may want us to be. Which is why Paul calls us at the beginning of chapter four and where we will go next week to “stand firm” in Jesus in this way…
What way is that you might ask again? The way that follows through on that Spirit moving through you right now! That you know how to act, talk, be, and love. That you know when Paul asks us to focus on what matters most; that you know what matters most. That when Paul calls us to be active Christian citizens, you know what it means to be a Christian citizen. That what we are being called to do is deny the flesh and live into the Spirit of God’s love in our world. That the earthly things so many desire of fame, fortune, pride, greed, jealousy, power, prestige, and popularity…that all these things whither and fall away, but our citizenship in heaven is eternal and will never falter.
This is what we are to safeguard against the evils of our world, this is why we are to turn away from the evildoers and false Christians who live counter to Jesus’ call. The false teachers and followers of Christ who do not live lives full of love for all God’s creation and love for all God’s people, but who focus instead on how they can divide the world to make themselves more populous and more popular…all the while, sullying the name of Jesus and using God’s name in vain as they promote and promulgate their own profane vanity.
And perhaps this hits close to home today, perhaps we are being called to be like Paul and count our old ways as loss as we look into the mirror and realize that we are sometimes the very people we detest. If that is so, I would say to us, let us lose it all for Christ then. Let us lay everything down for Jesus who is calling us to so much more than we could ever imagine. Let us press on toward that goal of the heavenly prize Paul talks about and declare once and for all that we are transformed into the glory of Christ and we will safeguard what matters most, protect our Christianity from falling into false hands, and be active Christian citizens who will call our world to be the earthly representation of love that is perfected in heaven.
And if we are afraid of losing it all, perhaps even our friends, family, or places of power and prestige…let us be reminded that losing it all for the glory of God so that our world would know the love of Jesus is not loss at all, but gain. For we are transformed in the process from all that we once hoarded in the flesh into all that we now gain in the Spirit. As we indeed possess heaven and live into all the gifts that the love of Jesus provides. Or as Paul ends our chapter for today and begins our chapter for next week with: the joy and crown of standing firm in the love of God; the joy, my beloved, of Jesus.
So let us indeed focus on living into the love of God that matters most; let us be living examples of citizens of heaven, Christian Citizenry whose hands and feet are filled with the hope, joy, and love; and let us indeed stand firm united in love, united in Jesus, those whom God loves and longs for, Amen!
“First United Church of Philippi, part II”
Rev. Tony Romaine—October 18th, 2020
Before we dive into our next chapter of Philippians, I want to talk about the stars. As a person who is fascinated with all things astronomical, the stars are one of my favorite items. When I was a child, I used to have a glow-in-the-dark poster that would illuminate the night sky above my bed. I could see all the constellations that are a part of our universe and I could dream about my place in these stars. Well, one amazing fact about stars that is pretty difficult to comprehend, but is awe-inspiring to think about, is that some of the light we see as the stars bright in the sky has been travelling to reach us for millions, if not billions, of years! This means that there is light just reaching us now, perhaps, that has been travelling to see us since the dawn of our universe.
So why do I bring this up? Because one of the greatest lines we hear this morning that Paul writes to the church in Philippi is that of verse 15, where he says, “so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world.” Remember, Paul is writing to the church in Philippi, and our modern-day church, with a two-part, over-arching framework in mind; that the Philippians should be focusing on what truly matters the most and that they must be active Christian citizens. So, Paul is asking us within our framework of focusing on what really matters most to be the beacons of hope to our weary world. But how do we do this you might ask? Well I’m glad you did, because now we can begin to unpack chapter two!
How we focus on what matters the most becomes evident in Paul’s second chapter where he begins with unity and humility. Of course Paul is writing to a church that was in its infant years of existence and unity would be important to that church, but do we think so little of being of one mind that we can disregard the importance of being united in the 21st Century?! If anything, our church is more in need of unity now then ever. And contrary to belief, unity is not without diversity, unity is focusing on what truly matters most through focusing on the love of Jesus Christ being our unifying centralization.
What I mean by that is that when we put aside the pettiness of our own ambitions and drives and leanings and you name it, and we instead focus on the awe-some love of Christ and live our lives as we were taught to live them…then we are truly united in one mind to love our world as God loved our world, as Jesus lived in our world, and as we are charged with extending to our world. When we recognize and realize that all God’s creation is all God’s creation and can unify around the dignity we all desire and should be given as part of God’s great tapestry, then we can be united in the love of Christ, as stars created by God.
Humbly, as the stars created by God and called by Paul to shine so brightly, we are one in a billion, or if you are counting humans, seven billion. Amazingly, in our creation we are infinitesimally ourselves, and yet also part of this great collective called creation. But more so, when we combine this realization of both how great and how small we are with the instruction to focus on what matters most, we are left to wonder how indeed we are to live our lives.
This is where this wonderful hymn comes in that we receive in verses 6-11:
(Jesus) who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
I call this a hymn, because that is what most Biblical scholars agree this was; an early Christological hymn of the early church. I’ll remind us that Paul was writing this letter in the 50s-60s CE, so this is in fact one of the earliest hymns that ever existed. What scholars love to do with this hymn though is try and figure out the minutiae of why Paul is using the language he does. When what I think we need to focus on is the entirety of the hymn’s message that we are to humble ourselves and answer the call of God in our worlds as those who would be called servants of a Great Master.
And why should we do this? Because Jesus, who himself was God, did not exploit his power, he did not exploit his position, he did not use the fact that He was God to rule over and be harsh on all his “subjects.” No, Christ emptied himself to serve the mission He was called to, to serve the Grace he was called to be, to be our Forgiveness we could never accomplish on our own, and to be the Love that our world so needed.
And Jesus did all of this in human form so that we could approach and digest the message God has for our lives and the message that Paul is once again reminding us through the repetition of this hymn. When we focus on what matters most and are active Christian citizens thorough loving God and loving our neighbor as Jesus taught us, that will appear to all others as acts of humility, not power; that will be acts of charity, not greed; that will be acts of love, not violence.
Moreover, because the call to action and the call to focus on what matters most can be a daunting task, Paul also reminds us of one thing that is not explicitly mentioned in the hymn but is deep down inside us all and such a part of being those created by God: Verse 13, “for it is God who is at work in you.” God is the one who is working within you to call you and inspire you and empower you to act. To be one of those bright shining stars in the night of our world and to let our world know that love does still exist, unity does still exist, and that what matters most are not the affairs of our world, but the affairs of our God who longs for us to love!
And when all seems lost and dark and scary and fear-filled; God shines ever more brightly through us by the lesson of Jesus who gave it all so that our world would know love and so that we would forever be loved in life eternal! So that indeed, nothing could get in the way of our doing of things on earth, not even death itself, for Christ conquered death, Christ conquered our crooked and devious world, and Christ did all of this through the humility of a life lived in love and paid for upon a cross.
Which brings us to what some scholars have called Paul’s digression in the second chapter when he speaks of Timothy and Epaphroditus. Sure it is important to mention that Timothy was Paul’s companion to Philippi and other places and helped Paul out immensely. That Timothy was like a son to Paul and his most trusted ally. Or that Epaphroditus was a Philippian sent to help Paul in prison and care for him on behalf of the Philippian church, and was actually probably the one who delivered Paul’s letter to the Philippians, since when Paul wrote this letter Epaphroditus was returning forthright and Timothy was going to be following shortly thereafter.
All that is definitely important and Paul thanks both Timothy, Epaphroditus, and the Philippian church for their care. But I could certainly have left out this little section and still had plenty to sermonize and focus on, as you all have experienced already! But I wanted us to hear something in this passage that could easily be missed. Paul is sending Epaphroditus back to the Philippians only after he was made well by the mercy of God for “He was indeed so ill that he nearly died.” The Philippian church was so concerned for Paul that they sent a messenger who almost died.
Now I would not advise anyone to go anywhere at the detriment of their health to help others. But I would say that we should care for one another so much that we would be willing to risk the comfort of our lives, the prestige of our lives, the ivory towers of our lives, the churches of our lives, the status and rank and popularity of our lives to help those who need our help. Again, I want to be really clear here, I am not calling us to purposefully step into dangerous situations that might end up in illness or death, for we are not to test the Lord our God. But what I am saying is that we do need to be in a place where we can imagine nothing standing in the way of the love of God.
Where if need be, if we are pressed, and if the Good News is at stake, we would send any resources we could muster, perhaps even those willing to physically step up, so that those who need our help could be lifted up and loved as we are called to love through Jesus Christ. Now we are not going to be able to be everything to everyone, but that is why there is seven billion of us, that is why we are not alone and God is working in and through us, that is why we are to focus on what matters most and to be active Christian citizens. Because when we do this, we live out our lives as we are called to live them by Our Creator and the one who put that spark of starlight within our soul. Not sitting idly by while the world falls apart, but humbling ourselves, centering ourselves on God, and actively pursuing where God is calling us now as Christian Citizens, as the stars shining brightly in our world! As those who Paul would call the world to welcome in the Lord with all joy and honor, because such people are willing to risk even death for the “work of Christ.”
This part reminds me of another important tidbit about stars…some of the stars we see, the light we think is shining and burning bright, have actually already perished. Their light is just reaching us, but they are long gone from the universe. This may seem sad to some, but the reason I bring it up is to remind us that a huge part of being the light to our world is that wherever we shine we leave a mark, a presence, a part of our essence, our God-spark, that will forever change our corner of our world. Which begs the question for us again, how will we focus on what matters most as stars in the darkness of our world? How will our light shine as Christian Citizens called to be God’s light in our world? How will we work within our call by God to bring hope to our world, with what time we have left in our world?
Do it like Jesus would; humbly, peacefully, and in a way that lets nothing get in the way of God’s love. But however you answer that call to do what matters most, to be a Christian Citizen, know God is with you, working in you, shining through you, Amen!
“First United Church of Philippi, part I”
Rev. Tony Romaine—October 11th, 2020
As we begin our journey into Paul’s letter to the Philippians, some background and historical context will be important. The city of Philippi which existed in the northeastern part of ancient Macedonia (modern day Greece) and was named after Philip II who was king of Macedonia and father to Alexander the Great. Geographically, it was a settlement about ten miles inland from the northern edge of the Aegean Sea on a major Roman road, the via Egnatia.
By the time of Paul’s letter, this was a thoroughly Roman settlement and although it no doubt held onto its Macedonian roots, it had become a resettlement for Roman veterans and reorganized as a Roman colony named Colonia Julia Augusta Philippensis. Because Paul would have been writing this letter in the 50s or 60s CE, this would fall historically in the reign of the emperor Nero.
Paul writes this letter from a prison somewhere, and while some sources want to claim that he is writing it from prison in Rome, others claim that it was when he was imprisoned in Caesarea, and still others want to claim that it was while he was imprisoned somewhere, we just don’t know where. I guess the point is we should all understand that Paul was imprisoned a lot! So, the authenticity of his imprisonment is not up to debate, just the actual location. Nevertheless, the importance of him being imprisoned is that he was willing to risk it all for God…foreshadowing!
We do know from Acts 16:9-15, that Paul has a vision that he and Timothy were supposed to “come over to Macedonia and help us.” When they awake, they immediately head for Macedonia and just outside of Philippi meet Lydia a trader in purple cloth who was a “worshipper of God,” and after she and her household were baptized, Paul and timothy were invited to stay with them. This was their inroad into Philippi and their establishment of a church there.
A couple of important items to note: the church in Philippi was the first church established by Paul in Europe. Also, when we say church, we mean that Paul and Timothy are using Lydia’s house and other houses to do small worship that, yes will eventually spread, but in its infant stages was really small group worship inside the homes of rich women. Which brings us to a point that we must never paint over, and Paul himself beckons us to recognize and uphold, that if it were not for the women of ancient Roman society, Christianity might never have had a chance of ever surviving…more foreshadowing!
This gives me another opportunity to do what I love and offer some historical context into what life was like for Christianity during the Roman Empire, especially on the European continent. In a letter to Diognetus from an unknown second Century author, it is written about the Christians, “They live in their own homelands, but reside as resident foreigners. They share everything as citizens, and put up with everything as foreigners.” If this does not describe aptly how Christians lived in Rome and how Romans themselves lived with Christians, then nothing else will. Greco-Roman cities like Philippi, were small in area and compact with populations exceeding modern averages of people per acre. In fact, some estimates place the population density within Roman cities to be around 200 people per square acre. The streets were narrow and, in most places, wide enough only for a horse cart at best. The houses had no fireplaces or furnaces, and to say the city was a dirty place might be a compliment. As historian Rodney Stark comments, “It is all well and good to admire the Romans for their aqueducts and their public baths, but we must not fail to see the obvious fact that the human and animal density of ancient cities would place an incredible burden even on modern sewage, garbage disposal, and water systems. Keep in mind too that there was no soap. Hence it is self-evident that, given the technological capacities of the time, the Greco-Roman city and its inhabitants must have been extremely filthy.”
Beyond the high population density and filth, Roman cities were also places of constant newcomers. Greco-Roman cities were not populated by generations of families but by a constant flow of immigrants. This constant flow of new people to a society produced strain on an already strained system of public utilities, public institutions, and public need. This created a society that was loosely affiliated with one another and focused highly on the stratification of income and the neglect of those who needed the most help. Is this starting to sound familiar to any of us?
I hope so, because now that we have some background and historical context, I want to get on with the why and what of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. We will not cover the whole book of Philippians today, but for the next four weeks we will be covering a chapter each week. And what comes abundantly clear out of this first chapter that Paul writes to the church in Philippi is that he wants them to focus on what truly matters most. We hear Paul, after addressing the church in Philippi say in verses 9-11, “9 And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10 to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.”
Paul is asking the church in Philippi to make sure the Gospel message of Jesus’ love and joy continue to be shared with the world that needs it so much. And Paul is writing them to let them know how thankful he is for their support, for their love for him, and for their concern for him. Moreover, it is Paul’s imprisonment that will help to spread the Good News, because if people like the Philippians can spread the Gospel even when the fear of imprisonment, or as Paul continues to write about, death, does not stop them, then nothing can stop the love of Jesus Christ to reach all the ears of those who need to hear it.
In this manner, we too are being called to do exactly the same thing. We are being called to share Good News, joy, love, with a world that does not seem to know the definition of these things. We are being called to extend the hands and feet of God even if it means we will be punished for loving too much, thought to be weak for having joy in a hate-filled world, or extending the hand of care to those we do not even know even if it means that we will have to work beyond our fear and work into a place of trusting in God.
And we are being called to be unpopular in many ways. We are being called to counter the divide within our society, we are being called to love into the corners and across the borders. We are being called to bring the message of eternal life and salvation through Jesus Christ in any way we can, however God is calling us, wherever God is calling us. And we are being called not just by God, or Jesus, or Paul, but our world is calling for us if we only stop to listen.
Which brings me to my final point that Paul closes his first chapter with. He calls the Philippians in verse 27 to “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” The Greek word that Paul actually uses is πολιτεύεσθε or politeuesthe, which translates as “to live as citizens.” Paul is calling the Philippians to live as Greco-Roman-Christian citizens. Paul is calling the people of Philippi to live and act and be a part of their society so as to create the change their society needs. To extend the hands of love into the places where this garbled, dirty, crowded world of Roman society exists. To extend a helping hand to the widow that has been lost, to the hungry who has no food, to the stranger or immigrant who has no place to live, to the economically unable who has no income, and even to the upper stratum of society where the most love is needed in times of political and social chaos, like the days of Paul and Nero.
And again, I ask if this sounds familiar! It should, because our world is calling us to do just the same. Our city, state, country, world is calling us to be 21st Century Christians who have a First Century heart! What I mean by that is that we are being called once more to go and be the love this world needs, we are being called to be a beacon to the world that can shine light into the darkness, and we are being called to do so not as ascetics who will separate ourselves from the world, but as those citizen Christians who will work to create change from the inside out. That is why we are spending the next four weeks with Paul and Philippi, because we need to hear what he had to say to them, for he is speaking directly to us, now more than ever!
So let me end today by saying the very same thing Paul said to the church in Philippi, I thank God every time I remember you, I am constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, and I cannot wait for us to bring the Good News to our world once more, Amen!
 Gillian Clark, Christianity and Roman Society, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 1.
 Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996) 149-150.
 Stark, 152.
 Stark, 156.