“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!